One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time.
- Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet
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An arrow came flying right at my head, and for a second, I forgot everything that I had learnt during training. I froze. My body had accepted the end, my mind was not fast enough to comprehend it yet.
I felt a push on the right side of my helmet, and a loud sound rattled inside my head, causing me to stumble and fall. Although I think that fall was part of my body’s acceptance.
But as I lay there on the ground, I realised that I was still breathing, my eyes could still see the blue of the sky and the red of the blood-stained earth. I couldn’t feel any pain.
I lifted my hand and touched the part of my helmet where I had felt a jerk, and there I found a horizontal notch, actually, it was much like the coin slots in vending machines.
My helmet had saved me, I was still alive, and there was still hope. So, I got up, tightening the grip on the hilt of my sword and pushed forward.
Faizal and his hoard had pushed back the tribesmen. Most were running helter-skelter. A few who were still putting up a brave stand were being cut down by the last remnants of Faizal’s hoard.
I hacked down one who charged towards me with a raised axe. He was young, maybe not even twenty. But this was how the world was during this time, and I had made my peace with it.
Another came charging at me, with bloodshot eyes and bloodied arms. It was like a suicide run. But he fell down before he could reach me. Faizal’s arrows never seemed to miss their mark.
“You are fine?” Faizal shouted, standing on the crest of the hill.
I showed him a thumbs up. Over the past few years, he and I both had begun understanding each other’s cultures and times.
“You need to run.” He said, coming down towards me. There was a scar that ran down his face, a scar which oozed blood.
“We need to run,” I replied, placing my hand on his shoulder and urging him.
“No, the Teris will return with a much larger force. I and the remainder of my men will hold them here, you run.”
“No, you need to come. We need to find the temple.”
“I need to stop the hoard, you need to go. Find the temple, save her.”
“You also need to get back the throne, you need to save your kingdom. You have to come.”
Faizal turned around and looked back at his scattered hoard, standing atop the hill, bloodied and tired, but not scared of meeting their inevitable fate.
He turned back towards me, “You said the world turned out just fine even when my brother ruled. If the world is safe and sound in the future, then I can’t jeopardise that by placing myself on the throne.”
I needed to tell him something so that he would come with me and not spurn his life so frivolously. But somehow I wasn’t able to find one convincing word, and Faizal continued speaking,
“If you weren’t there, then I would have died years ago. You saved my life, you gave me hope of a better future. And I guess all that is more important than actually getting that future.”
“The journey is much more important than the destination,” I muttered under my breath, recounting a time that seemed ages ago now.
“Yes, my friend. You saved my life, now I will save yours. Run! You don’t have much time. You have got to save her.” He nudged me on the shoulder, pushing me away.
“I will always remember you,” I said, slowly shuffling back. There wasn’t any time, and I couldn’t actually jeopardise my real mission because of emotions.
Faizal gave a huge smile, “That’s better than history remembering me.”
And with that, I turned around and ran. In the distance, I heard the war cry of the tribe, or it was probably my own head, imagining Faizal’s last stand.
No history book would remember this stand. No historian would know of Faizal and his struggle. His name would be lost in the annals of time.
If I had time, I would probably have remembered the last couple of years and wept, but there was simply none of it, so I ran, not looking back once.
At the bottom of the hill, the forest started once again, and before entering it I gave one last glance to what lay ahead, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. Although many miles of forest lay between me and the mountains, it was a journey that I had to make.
As soon as I was in the covering of the trees, I began throwing off unnecessary items. There were miles to go, miles that I needed to travel quickly because the tribesmen would soon be on my tail. I pulled off my armour, the helmet that had just saved my life and even the tiny water-bottle. If I travelled a little eastward, I could move along the river.
But by removing my armour, I had committed my second mistake. The first had been to stop.
When I began moving in the forest once again, I found myself less than thirty feet away from a stealthily approaching tribal unit. They had probably decided to circle the hill and catch Faizal from behind, but in doing so, had stumbled onto me.
I began to run. But no sooner had I lifted a foot, an arrow came and pierced me right in the chest, and then another and then another.
I didn’t know when I fell to the ground, I didn’t even realise when I was lying in my own pool of blood and my breathing was getting heavier and slower.
Damn it! I wanted to shout, but I no longer had the energy to speak.
I am sorry Shreya, I am so sorry.
I heard the tribesmen approaching, I heard the unsheathing of swords. It was time to go, and so I closed my eyes and thought of home.
I opened my eyes.
Nothing had changed. The other side of the bed still lay empty and cold. Sometimes it seemed like the universe was conspiring to keep her dead.
I turned around and was almost startled by the thick layer of dust that covered everything. The white sheets of the bed prevented me from seeing the truth, but the furniture and the floor around had taken on a uniform light brown colour. For how many years was I away?
I jumped out of bed, sending a ton of dust flying everywhere and went straight for the window. Pulling back the curtains, I saw that quite a lot must have happened while I was gone.
Last time I was here, there had been a huge park in front of my home, but now there stood three apartment buildings. I had given up so many years and hadn’t even come close to saving Shreya. I needed to go back in.
I almost went and slept back on the bed, but then remembered something. My journeys into the past were becoming more and more like dreams, with each detail trickling back into my memory ever so slowly.
The date. The year.
Which year the temple opened I didn’t know. All I knew was that I had landed in a time, where I had spent three years with Faizal and arrived at the once-in-a-thousand-year date. I couldn’t just add three years to the date I had gone back to, their calendars were different.
I turned back to the window. That day of October flashed in front of my eyes once again.
Blood, so much blood.
“Get up!” I could see Shreya pulling at the blankets, while I pulled them back, even though I was fully awake. I hadn’t wanted to get out of bed that day.
“Fine. I’ll get the groceries.” She had finally given up and went out, and I had laughed, taking happiness in this little victory of my laziness.
She would never return from that trip to the store. No matter what I did in the past, no matter what I changed, she would just never return. And on those rare occasions when everything turned out the way I wanted, a hundred other people wouldn’t return to their loved ones.
You can’t change anything. The hope of change was an illusion to keep the fool busy.
“But you can at least try.” I heard Shreya’s voice. And I know that it was in my head, know that it was my own mind speaking these words through her voice, but it all sounded so real that I felt she was here, standing beside me.
“Yes, I will try.” I muttered.
And there was one person who could help me figure out the correct time to land in. Although, she might just go into a shock first, seeing me after so many years. To her and the world, I had died, I guess.
I was out of the auto before it could fully stop.
The morning fog of Delhi had already made me waste a bunch of time.
“How much?” I asked the driver.
“Fifty rupees, sir.”
I grabbed a bunch of ten rupees notes from my pocket, counted the exact change and handed it to him.
Once the auto was gone, I walked towards the campus gate. I was still pretty far away from the gate, but the guard was already looking at me with a suspicious glance. I fingered the bundle of notes in my right pocket.
“What do you want?” Was the first question the guard asked me. An offensive opening.
I took out the hundred rupees bundle and handed it to him. There were around a hundred notes in it,
“Need to meet Professor Das.” I said.
The guard was left in a state of utter shock. He couldn’t lift his eyes from the bundle. This was a month’s salary for him, he wasn’t going to let this go. He was firmly in my grasp.
The guard, remembering that students were walking by stuffed the notes into his jacket.
“There are two Das here.” He said, ever so slightly pushing me inside the gate.
“Chitra Das.” I said.
“Last room on the left. Ground floor. Now go.” A mix of fear and urgency ruled his voice.
I patted him on the shoulders and went inside.
The last I had passed by Chitra’s campus had been a month before I went into Faizal’s time. That was four years ago. And though a lot had changed in this city, nothing on the campus had. It was like the only place that could counteract the effects of the passage of time.
The first time I had gone back in time had been on a miserable night. I do not know how many years ago that night was for I had lost all sense of time and didn’t want to regain it.
I had sat down on my bed, with a bunch of paracetamols in my hand. I wanted to kill myself. I was missing Shreya that much that night. But I hadn’t. I had simply closed my eyes and wished I could just change things, I had wished I would have gone to the grocery store instead of her.
When I opened my eyes, it had been October of 2008, it was that morning. Even though I prevented Shreya from going to the market, she died later on in the day in a car crash which I survived.
That is when it had begun, my vain efforts to save her and see her die each time. My inability to save her.
I pushed open the front gate of the main building and walked in. There was a drastic change in temperature. I could walk in here without my jacket.
I took a left and walked right till the end of the corridor, until I reached the door with Chitra’s name on it and Chitra’s muffled voice, seeping out of it.
December 2014, that is when I had gone back to Faizal’s time. And now I had come back four years later. She would definitely have marked me as dead in her head. And as I fiddled with the doorknob, I wondered whether it would be right to waltz back into her life. Wouldn’t it be better if she kept thinking her brother was dead, instead of being in that same miserable state that he had been in so many years ago?
Before I could make any decision though, there came the shuffling of feet from inside and the door was yanked open.
Chitra stood in front of me.
For the longest of time, she didn’t say anything, and I also didn’t disturb her. It would take her a long time to register it all. But what she was registering was beyond me. Chitra never let her emotions come on her face.
“You…you are…you are back.” She mumbled. I could see her eyes turning watery.
“Yes.” I said, smiling a little, hoping to let those tears flow. But it somehow had the opposite effect. She instead raised her hand and slapped me hard. I staggered back, almost stumbling over.
A stinging pain shot up through my cheek, and I feared I must have lost a tooth or two. Chitra had beaten me her fair share when we were kids. But this slap was worse than all those beatings combined.
“Go a little easy, dude.” I said.
She leapt at me, like a tiger on its prey, and I feared another slap to ring my head, but instead, she hugged me,
“I knew you would be back…I knew you would be back.”
And even though I had an urgency, even though this hug did feel a little drawn out, I was going to let Chitra have this. I couldn’t disappoint everyone all the time.
“Where were you?” She said, letting me go, “Mom went mad looking for you. She gave you up for dead. But I knew you would be back. I just knew it.”
Ma. I hadn’t seen her in such a long time.
“Where were you, you idiot?” Chitra said, a little louder.
“Listen,” I grabbed her shoulders, “I need your help. And I promise one day I will tell you everything, but right now I need your help.”
“So you want me to figure out an ancient date according to our calendar system?” Chitra said.
A good span of time had passed since I had knocked on her door. A span of time in which I had explained to her my demands, without revealing my ability to time travel and without sounding crazy. As for the latter one, I had failed miserably.
“You have been missing for four years. Nearly everyone thinks you are dead, and you come back and want to know about a date? How much of your mind have you fucking lost?”
Most of my friends from back in school had learned to abuse from each other, or from some elder brother. But it had been Chitra who taught me all that stuff. And the older she had grown, the more reserved her abuses had become. They were used for situations that truly deserved them. So hearing her abuse now startled me.
“I know I sound crazy. I truly know that. But this information, it is crucial. It is extremely crucial. And right now, at this moment, I can’t tell you why I need it. I want to, but I can’t. But I promise, tomorrow, everything will be okay and I will tell you all the stuff. Just trust me.” I said, making my plea as sincere as I could.
Chitra just stared at me, unable to believe a word of what I had said.
“You know,” she finally said, “when Shreya died, I felt really sorry for you. And I felt that way for you for a very long time. But you know what? Now I feel that you have turned just plain old selfish.”
“Listen Chitra…” but I was cut-off.
“No, you listen.” There was an authority in her voice which I feared, “before you went missing, Shreya had already been dead for six years. But it wasn’t just Shreya whom we all had lost. We had lost you too. You never came back after that day. I lost you, mom lost you, even that little son of mine, who couldn’t understand what was going on lost you.
“We know you were grieving. But even in grief one can be a son and a brother. But you, you just went away. I had Preet, but what did mom have? You were her favourite, she was all alone, and she lost you. You were alive, yet you were dead. When you went missing, mom thought that you would come back one day, someday. But you didn’t. And the longer mom waited, the madder she became. She lost her mind in your wait until she couldn’t take it anymore and accepted you were dead.
“She had lost her son years and years before she accepted you were dead. And now you come back, still so selfish, still so involved in your own life. You didn’t even ask how mom was. And you want me to understand you? Families are supposed to stick together, to bring each other out of their grief. But you just doubled it for us.”
“Chitra…” There were a lot of things that I wanted to say, but Chitra didn’t let me.
“Remember that time you nearly ran away from home?”
I shook my head. Somethings you always remembered distinctly, no matter how much time passed.
“I now feel that I should have let you go in that bus and not convinced you to come back. If I had done that, maybe you wouldn’t have led such a miserable life, and mom and I wouldn’t have suffered as much pain.”
“She was my wife…”
“Mom and I loved her too.”
The fact that the dead were never going to come back was probably a failsafe against insanity. It spared you and the ones around you. But that ship had sailed for me long ago, on that fateful night when I realised there was something different with me.
I could travel to any point in the past before that night, but never could I save her. How could I explain my desperation to Chitra?
“Chitra, I know I have been a bad son and a worse brother. There are things that I wish I could set right. Things that I wish I could tell you. But I can’t. I have failed in all these relations. But, I was a good lover. Despite all my flaws, I truly cared for Shreya, and I need to save her. I can’t fail her again. Not her, not her memory. So tell me the date, and I’ll be gone for good.”
There is a look on people’s faces, a look which they give when they see a man or woman who is beyond saving. Chitra’s face had that look. She wouldn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. But I could. So, I couldn’t fail.
She got up from the sofa and went back to her desk,
“Give me some time.” She said, beginning to type at her desktop.
“And if I don’t come back, don’t tell mom I was here. She won’t be able to bear losing her son twice.”
Chitra looked up from the screen, giving the faintest of smiles,
“She already has lost her son twice.”
I pulled back the arrow and waited. Breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out…
The guard had stood pretty still for a while now, and my aim at his neck was steady. So, I let the arrow fly.
I wasn’t any master archer, but one thing that Faizal had taught me, was to shoot at the neck when trying to maintain stealth. It ensured a quick and silent death.
And that is what exactly happened. The arrow pierced the tribal guard on the left side of his neck and he immediately fell down. Even in the partially moonlit night, I could see the stairs beneath him turn red and his body quivering to a stop.
That was the ninth guard, and I hoped he had been the last one for I was nearly at the temple gate now.
I notched another arrow and trotted up the step, making sure to make as less noise as possible.
The climb to the temple hadn’t been that difficult. There was a perfect staircase that led straight to the door. It was as if the temple wanted people to visit it. Or maybe it was just the magic of this once-in-a-thousand-year date. Given all the stuff that I had seen recently, I wouldn’t put it beyond the stairs to vanish once the night was over.
I reached the top of the stairs without much event. At the top, a rectangular hole in the mountain-face greeted me. There were a series of intricate carvings which ran across the edges of this hollowness, carvings which I would have admired on a less busy day.
I put the arrow back, put the bow across my shoulder, unsheathed my sword and entered the darkness.
But it wasn’t an utter blackness that greeted me. In front of me lay a courtyard that was well-lit by a series of torches.
My ears strained to hear the slightest of movements. Who knew how many more tribesmen were inside?
When for a long time nothing happened, I put my guard down and looked around. Pillars adorned the sides of this courtyard, pillars beyond which was utter darkness. It wasn’t as if the light from the torches went irregular distances beyond the pillars. No, they all ended flat at the boundary of the courtyard. It was a barricade of sorts. It was…
“Thank you for getting rid of those pesky little guards.” A voice boomed across the entire place.
I lifted up my sword again and turned around in circles, waiting for something terrible to pop out of the darkness.
“You came in search of me but now you are scared?” The voice boomed again.
“Who are you?” I shouted.
“I just told you.”
“You are the Time Keeper?”
“So is that what they are calling me these days?”
“If you want, then I can file a petition for a better name?” I kept looking in each direction. Where was this guy?
“Stop searching for me. I have no physical form. I lost it years ago. Maybe even before us men discovered fire. I don’t remember.”
“You are an immortal?” I put the sword down, but didn’t sheath it.
“You are in the mood for a chat today? Quite uncharacteristic. I know why you have come here…” Some words were left hanging in the air.
“Then let us not stand on ceremony. Help me.”
“If you understood time, you wouldn’t be asking me to help you.”
“But I don’t, so help me.”
“Time is linear. It is like a thread whose ends never meet. You and thousands of travellers before you think that you can create branches in time. Mould it according to your whim. But you can’t. Time corrects itself. It straightens out. All of you are spectators who can just view the thread, you can’t change it.”
“Listen, I would really appreciate it if you could speak in simpler terms. And secondly, I know there is a way. I know someone who saved their loved ones without repercussions.” The only reason I wasn’t losing it right now was because there wasn’t anyone in front of me to lash at.
“Changing the past is like creating a ripple. Create a large enough ripple, and time straightens it by propagating that ripple throughout the thread. Create a larger one, and time will simply tie your efforts in a knot. The thread will always remain straight.”
“Then I will fucking spend the rest of my life creating ripples, until your bloody thread breaks.”
“Anger. It will break you before you break the thread.”
“I will save her, and you will tell me how. I need to save her.”
“I wish I didn’t know why you so desperately wanted to save her, it would have made for a nice conversation.”
“Tell me the way, please…” I couldn’t return from here emptyhanded.
“Create a compensating ripple. Save her, and at the same time and place, sacrifice your life. Both your lives are equal, so the thread wouldn’t need to propagate your ripple to compensate it.”
I stood there, trying to make sense of what I had just heard. I just needed to kill myself? In a way, I just needed to replace Shreya with myself? And with that, she would live? It made sense in a way, given all the compensating events I had seen in my repeated attempts to save her. But, the solution was so simple that my mind wasn’t able to believe it.
Shreya could be saved. I needed to die.
I suddenly found myself smiling. Yes, yes, yes…
I had done it. I had finally found a way. Yes!
“I hope you are not wrong.” I shouted, my heart racing, my body itching to go back to that time. Shreya could be saved. It didn’t matter that I didn’t survive. But Shreya would live.
“What do I have to lose, by pounding on your misery? What do you have to lose, if what I say turns out to be a lie?”
“Thanks.” I said, not caring for his remark. I closed my eyes and thought about that morning in October, that time when Shreya wanted me to go to the market. I thought hard about it and…
“Get up!” I opened my eyes to see Shreya tugging at my bedsheet.
Shreya, alive again. And this time I wouldn’t have to see her die. She would live.
I jumped out of bed.
“Everything will be fine now.” I said.
She, not having any indication of what was to happen or what all had transpired, eyed me with suspicion.
“What is up with you?” She asked.
I looked up at the clock which hung on the wall, I had eight minutes to reach the spot of Shreya’s death and die.
“I had this weird dream. But I am fine now. I am here and I love you. And I will always love you.” I said, taking hold of her hands. So cold and so soft to the touch. So familiar, like home.
“You are usually horny when you get up, not romantic.” She was unable to control her laughter at her own statement.
I laughed along with her.
Even if my death didn’t change anything, at least it would end all this misery, and I would die with this memory. What better way to end a life?
I kissed her and felt that electricity of old rise up from the small of my back. It would be fine now, it would all be fine now.
“Goodbye.” I said, moving away.
“Goodbye.” She muttered, confused as to what had happened, but that love was still there. She would live, and she would learn to live without me, and she would learn to be happy again. She wouldn’t become as miserable as I had, and mom and Chitra also wouldn’t have to suffer.
I turned around, but couldn’t leave. I had to hold her one last time.
So I rushed back and embraced her tightly, smelling her hair, tracing the outline of her shoulders and leaving behind a memory that would be worth calling a last memory.
She looked at me, this time scared, and before she could speak, I placed a finger on her lips and said,
“I’ll always be with you.”
And this time, I did turn around and run. There was such less time. So I ran as fast as my legs could go. Running out of the flat, down the stairs and onto the road.
The crossing where Shreya had died was ahead, and I reached it within a minute. And when I turned left, I saw the truck approaching, the one that had killed her.
I waited a couple of seconds, then closed my eyes and stepped onto the road.
Shreya would live. The only thing I had wanted for the past ten years would come to pass. I had finally saved her.
When the truck hit me, it didn’t feel like a truck hitting at all. It felt like the gentle touch of Shreya. I guess I was that much at peace with everything.
The torches burned on, as they had for eons. It was only with the arrival of this expected visitor that they flickered.
The Time Keeper, who had eyes everywhere, and who had seen every movement of this visitor, decided to let his presence known. But before he spoke his first word, he stopped, a dilemma plaguing his mind. Should he let it be known that all this had happened before? That he knew the outcome through and through? For a second he was even tempted to reveal the truth, reveal the circularity, the trap. But then he stopped the thread needed to be maintained. So instead he said,
“I know what you seek, so I must let you know that it is impossible.”
“It isn’t impossible. I know of someone who saved their loved ones. You need to tell me how. I need to save him.” Shreya said, throwing back the hood of her cloak.