Ahriman IV

IV

1. Satisfied with the final settlement at the village, Ahriman hastened his return to the city. Initially, he was repelled by the change of atmosphere, but as he reached home, everything from the familiar environment seemed to welcome him. His parents had been waiting impatiently. The table was laid and Ahriman saw his favorite dishes in front of him. They talked till late in the night over several cups tea. The father was delighted to hear his son discuss the property affairs with purposeful animation. He did not tire of asking all the details which Ahriman repeated eagerly.

Only at midnight did Ahriman retire to his room. As he lay in bed, he thought of Zareena, her children and their excitement at seeing him again. Soon sleep overtook his thoughts and scattered them in dreams.

He woke up early in the morning. The window curtains were not drawn and the sun shone brightly into the room. The air was cold but he could feel the sun’s warmth on his face. It was a perfectly clear day; a few autumnal leaves were still clinging to the ivy hanging in front of the window. After getting dressed and having breakfast, Ahriman unpacked his bag and took out a little snare. He had tried similar ones for catching birds, years ago, and now wanted to make a present of it to Mehernosh. A pair of partridges was ready in a little birdcage to be handed over to him as well. Ahriman asked the servant to arrange the fruits in a basket and take them to Zareena’s house. He felt sorry because a few specimens of formidable looking beetles were all that he had brought for Mehreen. With these special gifts in hand, Ahriman went to see the family. He was received by the maidservant, who told him that Zareena was still in bed. This was unusual.

“Where are the children?” asked Ahriman casually, not expecting the unpleasant surprise he was about to receive.

“They have been sent to their father,” the maid replied.

“When will they return?” he asked.

“They won’t,” replied the maid.

“What do you mean?”

“So I have heard.”

Ahriman was now greatly agitated. He could see why Zareena had not written, but he failed to understand the reason for such a grievous change. He knew how close the children were to the mother. Ahriman inquired about Zareena’s health to which the maid said that she was fine otherwise and did go to work. The maid had nothing else to say of this unforeseen happening. Ahriman tried to come up with explanations to set his mind at ease as he left to visit his Ustad.

2. When Ahriman came, the Ustad was in one of his terrible bouts of breathlessness which had worsened after a chest infection. He could not greet him too warmly as he fought for breath. He gestured with an unsure twist of the hand when Ahriman asked him how he was feeling. “He can scarcely get enough sleep,” his son said. “He cannot lie down – the suffocation increases.”

“How is everything with you?” asked the Ustad. “How much have you been playing?” Ahriman told him in hesitant phrases that he could not do justice to music and that he practiced but little. The Ustad sent his son away to bring tea. “Play something,” he said turning to Ahriman.

Ahriman took the Sarangi and began reasonably well, but luck deserted him when he proceeded to complex progressions. When he looked up, the Ustad signaled him to stop with a painful frown.

“You trust me as your master, and know that I only have goodwill towards you,” said the Ustad. Ahriman nodded. “So please listen to what I tell you, and don’t be offended.” Ahriman expected an unwelcome response and he was not wrong. “My present state convinces me that it won’t be long before I am called away. Don’t think that I am excusing myself from teaching you further; I would have done that till my last moment. You know, Ahriman,” he continued after a pause, “the time for learning is past. Invest your energies in some other pursuit, to which you are still equal, and in which you might even outdo others. One should bow to the demands of practical life if one lacks the seriousness that art requires. Had I been lacking in faith, I might have been terrified to find myself at the end of an uneventful life. And I am not! I have justified myself in God’s eyes. Will you be able to do so? The son of respectable parents playing classical music and playing it well. That is not conceivable! People will laugh at you. Of course, they will when you claim to have a clue to invisible greatness. And it will be more painful when you yourself cannot do justice to it. If you think you will play for leisure, let me tell you this is not the right instrument. The time for learning is past, I repeat. This is what I tell my own son. He welcomes this truth and it hurts me, just like it might have hurt you. Had you been my son, I would have succeeded in bringing up at least one worthy disciple. But let’s not sulk; we know God had willed it otherwise.”

Ahriman had expected hours of blissful instruction from his Ustad and cheerful greetings from Zareena and her children. He was too headstrong to accept things when they took unexpected turns, as if without his permission – at least, his frown gave such an impression. The Ustad was about to doze off when his son brought tea. Ahriman sipped his cup hastily and excused himself saying that he was suddenly reminded of another urgent commitment. The Ustad shook his hand and gave him his blessing in a tone which held little reassurance.

After returning, Ahriman went out for a walk. It was a beautifully sunlit afternoon. A gentle breeze was blowing. Leaves fell from the poplars and rustled along the road. The air was chilly and fragrant but failed to make Ahriman cheerful. His feelings were the same as he knew from the time when he first fell in love. What was it now that worried him so? He knew not whether to pity that old man at the end of his life – miserable in body but exuberant in inner strength – or himself. “Is this not the end every man is destined to meet?” he thought. “Why shirk the misery? Am I not strong enough for such a faith? And even if I were, where am I supposed to turn?” He wanted to go and cry his heart out to Zareena, as if she would save him from this self-chosen misery. But how could he talk about leisurely topics to a mother who had to part from her own children for a reason he was yet to find out? How much suffering would she be going through? How would he ask her the simple yet terrible question? And how would he endure the answer? He walked on with incessant steps almost trying to trample his thoughts and move away.

3. He went to Zareena’s in the evening. She greeted him in a very reserved manner, and Ahriman forced a smile vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. The lights had gone out and she was sitting with a candle burning on the center table. She asked him about his village stay and other general affairs. Ahriman replied prosaically. He wanted her to bring up the topic of children but she did not utter anything till he asked. “Didn’t the maid tell you?” she said. “They’ve been sent away to their father.”

“The maid also said that they won’t be coming back. But how’s that possible! How could you yield so easily to his wishes!” Ahriman exclaimed. “Do you think that person will be able to take care of those delicate souls?”

“Why not?” Zareena replied coldly.

“I fail to understand you. Tell me, Zareena, what forced you to take such a dreadful step? I think I have a right to know this much, after all.”

“I hope you will not deny me this hard-earned privacy. You know, I have always longed for it,” she said sternly. “Remember that I am their mother and know what is best for my children.”

“Forgive me the transgression, but I seriously disagree with your argument,” he said, mellowing down.

“No more of this, please!”

Ahriman had wanted to ask and say so much but all seemed trivial in the face of this mysterious reserve. She was quiet but gave no impression of displeasure at his presence. Ahriman felt ill at ease but did not want to leave. He was seeing Zareena after ages, as it were. He noticed that the ruddy glow had vanished from her face and had given way to paleness. Perhaps it was the candlelight, he thought. She looked weak, and the mellow sadness that had pervaded her features was changed to a stern expression not allowing any surmises as to her inner state.

“You will stay for dinner, wouldn’t you?” she asked Ahriman with a gentle smile. Wanting to say yes, Ahriman shook his head. Even his gestures were in discord with his wishes. They sat for a long time, she with her own thoughts and Ahriman with his own. It had grown dark and the very walls of the house sounded the desolation brought about by the absence of children. Ahriman looked at the poorly lit hallway leading to the staircase and felt he could see the children approaching on tiptoes. Every now and then, he felt as if they would spring up from a hideout and surprise him with a warm embrace. Zareena’s eyes were fixed on the steady candle flame. Ahriman wondered at her attitude and even felt angry at her rude composure. Not being able to endure the estrangement that grew with every passing moment, he moved forward and gently clasped her hands. “What’s the matter, Zareena?” he asked in a low voice. Returning from her grim thoughts, she slowly met his gaze. Tears glittered in her dark eyes as she slightly shook her head, wanting to say, “Nothing.” Ahriman felt that he was forcing her unduly with his own insolence. He secretly vowed never to mention what must be unendurable for this graceful woman, unless she decided to say something herself. He pressed her hands and was somewhat comforted to see that she too understood his compassion and responded with a melancholy smile. She excused herself for a moment; Ahriman rose from his place and left without waiting for her to return.

4. The next day, Ahriman received the message that Zareena wanted to see him. He was soon there and found her in the lawn. As she greeted him, Ahriman noticed that what he saw last night was not an illusion. She had grown thinner and paler. “I’ve prepared lunch for you, and I hope you won’t leave without permission this time. Never mind. Children need to be forgiven such carelessness,” she said jokingly.

“It’s very cloudy, today,” said Ahriman changing the topic.

“Yes,” she replied, “it doesn’t look too appealing in winter. But see how the Chrysanthemums you sent are blooming in bright colors to counter the weather’s effect. Sometimes, so little is needed to make us cheerful.”

Ahriman smiled and thought of the children. He did not know how to tell her that without her children she appeared only half a being. He even fancied that she would have loved the compliment if he had made it in milder circumstances. Meanwhile, the table was laid and they went inside. They ate and conversed as if nothing had happened. Ahriman did not keep back whatever else he had to say about the events of his life. He mentioned his visit to the Ustad and took trouble to justify the old man’s wise counsel. He felt more at peace without the slightest urge to oppose the necessity of events. Zareena listened patiently, and finally said, “It is, indeed, a good thing to realize the limitations we are subject to. It requires honesty and humility which are not to be learned from books, but from an impartial interpretation of our achievements and failings.”

“Resignation to fate appears to be the wisest course,” replied Ahriman.

“Only if we are too sure of what fate has in store for us! Otherwise, it is important to know whether it is perseverance or obstinacy that is driving us, and whether we respond with laziness or humility.”

“You are becoming more and more pedantic,” said Ahriman.

“Well, my profession demands that to an extent, and so does my life, presently, doesn’t it?” she said with a cold smile.

“Yes, it does,” replied Ahriman, not knowing what to say. “Where did that come from?” he said, noticing a plaster cast of the Fasting Siddharta on the mantelpiece.

“Oh, from a souvenir shop,” replied Zareena. “What a motif the artist chose for this ancient masterpiece! These sunken eyes, the emaciated body, the visible veins running across the bare chest, the folds of the garment, all have a strong effect which is not in the least terrible. It is marvelous to see such torment depicted by a sublime, artistic hand. Here we find nothing to be idealized but a necessity that had to be undergone by this great human being to achieve a higher, calmer state. What do you say?”

“You have a point,” replied Ahriman. “Perhaps here is an experience that did not become an end in itself, but an indispensable means to a nobler end.”

“But is it not so with many other founders of religion?” she said in a spirited voice. “They put forth a great vision based on ineffable experiences and observations of which no one wants to know anything. Their visions too are eventually corrupted by followers and theologians because they only receive a surface impression. And the saddest thing to see is that many an intelligent person in after times would come forth and pour his scorn on what was only a contemporary exegesis. The maimed words over-interpreted and placed out of their proper context have evoked revolts unjustifiably directed towards the great thinkers and prophets.”

“I agree with you; but one might raise the objection that belief without comprehension needs to be questioned. Otherwise, each vision would be equally true.”

“I’m not putting forward an apology of blind faith; far from it. You can call it a panegyric on true greatness. Greatness which doesn’t justify the errors that go with it, but remains inexorable in spite of them.”

“This sounds like a mystical belief.”

“Anything proceeding from the spirit will always have mystical tendencies, but you can’t say that this makes one believe in them. Mystical thoughts raise doubts about themselves which keep them from having complete sway. That is why after every deep experience, one has to relearn common sense.”

“What do you think of mysticism then?”

“I don’t know, but blind followers and their -isms are always poor arguments. The mystics these days, like many others would mould any experience or doctrine to suit their shriveled fancies.”

“To me it seems as if what they seek is the essence of spirituality, and the images it inspires poetry and art cannot go without.”

“One could grant mystical tendencies the liberty of taking occasional leave of the sensuous, but on one condition: only if the images become palpable works of art. Unbridled mysticism is simply intolerable. We cannot gain much from whirling dances, hashish and wine, unless we want to mistake delirious orgies for divine inspiration. Indeed, whoever does not give good form to his reverie cannot produce anything of lasting value. We comprehend nature now in its beauteous aspect, now in its harshness, while all nature does is maintain its indifferent consistency. Only a great poet can see the world with the eyes of love and his genius win him universal appeal. Everything depends on what use one makes of inspiration and experience.”

5. Zareena would be indisposed for days. Ahriman did not like to be told by the maid that Zareena was not feeling well, but he always tried to understand her peculiar situation. And then, her cordial attitude confirmed the fact that his company was very welcome to her.

As the meetings grew infrequent, Zareena’s company became more and more precious for Ahriman. Pleasant feelings returned for Ahriman as conversation grew livelier, but every other moment brought inexpressible oppression. It took him some time to come to terms with the absence of children and the lack of their mother’s fond remarks about them.

When he was home, he would be engrossed in his books and seek consolation for unnamable sorrows in the writings of the ancients. The distance of centuries cast a becoming twilight on their speculations and tragic themes. How well he was beginning to understand them and how dear was every insight that he gained for himself during late hours of the night! For him, a nobler world was in the making. He did not care what was to become of him but wistfully followed his uncertain path, ennobling it with the company of the most circumspect of all women he knew.

One day, his old friend, the palmist came to see him after months of absence. He showed no signs of bitterness over their last meeting and Ahriman made no mention of it either, and was more obliging than usual. The palmist frankly related some interesting recent events of his life while Ahriman only mentioned those he thought proper for the company of friends. Thus he had little to say. The palmist told him that during recent months, he had become closer to the face-reader. When Ahriman expressed his pleasure at the news, the palmist could not leave off talking about the face-reader’s subtle virtues which were not apparent initially. It seemed as if he were defending her against some bad opinion she had unknowingly incurred. The palmist had changed, Ahriman thought, and changed for the better. His skepticism was transformed into a healthy interest in the girl with whom he had almost had an unpleasant scene. Perhaps, that vigorous interaction and the ensuing reconciliation had exerted a decisive effect on them. Hatred too could engender love, he thought; only indifference annihilates it. After having talked in a cheerful vein, the palmist brought up a more serious topic. “I was shocked to hear that you fell out with Sarah for no particular reason,” he said. “It seems that you acted in haste.”

“I’m not all that mindless, my friend! This was the only way. I would’ve failed to free myself of this bond if I had let anyone know. The guilt of the deed still weighs on me, and I can only hope that she’ll forgive me.”

“If you decide to change your mind, let me tell you that all is not lost. The face-reader has been talking to Sarah and she is not too bad at guessing a person’s feelings. Sarah tries to shun your thought from her mind, but she is still very much in love with you. She’ll be definitely reconciled if you apologize. Where else will you find a girl who is not only pretty but very decent as well? Isn’t that a rare combination, after all?”

“I don’t doubt your sincerity nor deny the fact that Sarah is an excellent girl in many ways,” Ahriman said calmly. “It’s enough, my friend, if one learns something from one’s mistakes. Making up for them would require another lifetime. I’m the one to blame for her unhappiness. And what’s more troublesome is that I don’t truly feel any remorse. You can’t imagine how it worsens my situation. Have you ever felt like that?”

“No, but I can expect something of the sort from you.” replied the palmist with a smile.

“Please! This is not the time for poking fun. Trust me, it’s a terrible feeling. There’s so much on my mind that I cannot even account for. In a way, I feel I have been just by giving her another chance to settle in life, as she would wish and like. I committed the greatest sin on the day I fell in love with her. After that, nature has only run its course and brought us to a predictably unhappy end.”

“You sound more considerate than before and one might assume that you have matured. But I think your maturity only serves to shroud your obstinacy.”

“Think what you may, but I don’t consider it wise to patch up old rags only to watch them wear to tatters again.”

“You’ve learned well to spiritualize your motives with allusions and analogies, and I can’t argue with such affectation. So I’ll leave. You’ve not changed at all, Ahriman. If you can’t renounce a little freedom for the sake of someone who is worthy of your love in every way, you’ll never be able to endure the bitterness that reality has in store for every human being. You’ve grown up in an environment where the course of life has faithfully followed your will. You know nothing of sharing your happiness and privileges with others, and lack the gratitude that you owe to God. Only God can save you from misfortune, Ahriman. Let me tell you, this deprecation of love will become your fatality.” The palmist said in a heated tone and left once again in a very bitter mood.

6. Ahriman was distraught by his friend’s lack of understanding. He was in low spirits for the rest of the day. What understanding he demanded from him he did not know, but he still thought this was not the way a friend treated a friend. He spent a restless night. He was beyond the point where one shares one’s concerns with others. The concerns were no longer common and even improper. The next day, he went with his troubled thoughts to Zareena. She was inside the house about to finish her session with the students who had come to seek help. “I find myself in an uncomfortable situation,” she said as the students left. “They come and ask what is important from the examination point of view. Out of politeness, I sin against my own ideal and tell them what they want to know. I hope they do well.”

“I do understand what you say,” replied Ahriman, “but you need not blame yourself. Genuine interest is not something to be imposed from without, especially at this stage of life.”

Zareena nodded and heaved a sigh. “You know, Ahriman? I had a brother like you,” she said with an affectionate smile. “Were he still living, he would have been your age.”

“You were telling me about yourself on a previous occasion, and you mentioned your brother. I think you were interrupted when – ”

“Mehernosh burned his hand,” she said, completing his sentence.

Ahriman nodded, wanting to hear more and expressed his wish with some hesitation. “Alright,” she said, “if you allow me to say what strikes me as significant.” Taking a few moments, she continued, “My parents were of the sort who like many others wished only to have sons. But they were not granted this happiness till late in life. I have two older sisters and a brother who was seven years younger to me. My sisters and I were not reason enough for our parents to be happy. We realized this as we grew up and my sisters never ceased lamenting this lack of attention from our parents. I felt it too but never joined them in such discussions. They did not particularly enjoy my company and I was satisfied to stay away because hearing them only made me bitter. They did not spare me the torment of relating how grieved my mother looked when she first held me up in her hands. Then our brother was born and became the center of attention. He was a lovely child and it was difficult not to love him. My sisters withdrew with their bitterness and the time was not far when they themselves got married and went away. What troubled me was their vacillation between self-pity and joining hands with our mother in family disputes. It was terrible to find out later how they themselves acted and wished very much like our parents: sons were as gems, daughters were a curse. The most difficult part for me was reconciling myself to a satisfactory view. But it did not take too long. My brother’s birth was a blessing. I took care of him whenever my mother was busy with other chores. I had not lost all respect for myself by staying aloof and it was a great happiness to be loved so much in return by the little child. I relearned to take pleasure in toddlers’ games. Eventually, I won the favor of my parents and was allowed to enjoy privileges that I had never dreamed of. I would get more and more books I wanted to read and could take my brother out for walks.

“I had some friends at school but the bonds never strengthened because my father’s work required us to move from city to city. I was not averse to meeting new people, but making acquaintances, then moving away to some other place and not seeing those people again was not to my liking. It gave me a foretaste of the impermanence of everything human and deepened my devotion to God – a being that never denied communion and was present everywhere. He answered me by fulfilling my wishes almost every time; I never demanded the impossible.

“Our religious views change with age, but the initial impressions leave their mark on our thoughts. Whenever I encounter religious scripture, and of whatever sort, I find it overflowing with nobility. And how much one has to change in order to lend an adequately attentive ear to their teachings! Criticism is not out of place anywhere, but it becomes superfluous if the intention is not earnest. There is a difference between objectivity and vulgarity. It’s nothing to have defended a religious view or having opposed it with paws and claws – here I would include many witty remarks –, but to discover its timeless human appeal and higher worth which illumined the times of its origin, that is something. What would be the worth of history if it were not a record of man’s spiritual and intellectual concerns?

“My daily routine was uncomplicated. After school and college, I would finish my homework and then help my brother with his work. We were allowed to play as much as we liked. At night, I would usually read a book for some time after saying my prayers. My brother would occasionally come to me and ask me to read aloud. He enjoyed hearing stories from me, he said, and did not care if he could not understand everything. He often told me that I was very pretty and I would return the compliment. Then he would ask me, ‘How do you know?’ I would tell him that we grow so accustomed to our own features that it takes others to point out the beautiful in us.

“At one time, chickenpox broke out in our school, and I was not spared. I could tell that my brother was not very pleased to see the rashes. One day, he came running to me and said, ‘Do not worry so, Zareena! I just talked to the family doctor and he told me that you would soon grow pretty again.’ The sweet child was alarmed by the change in my appearance and had seemingly dreaded a grim answer to his urgent question.

“Our days at the village, as I had told you, were very enjoyable. We were left more to ourselves and could go around talking to and playing with our cousins and other village boys and girls. Once, at a wedding, I was sitting in the courtyard with my brother at my side. He had covered his face with both his hands and pressed close his nostrils. He whispered to me that he could not stand the odor of the crowd around us. There was a girl sitting with us and talking to me. I ignored my brother’s irritation but the other girl did not. Looking at his strange posture and frown, she said that I should tell my brother not to cover his face like that because those who do so, their parents die. My brother did not hear her and asked what she was saying. When I told him, he became very angry. I told him how unhappy I was with his inconsiderate behavior and then I tried to explain that the girl was saying everything in earnest; and that he could not blame anyone for being superstitious. I did not want to embarrass him, but I pointed out a few strange premonitions which kept him from going to the kitchen at night.

“During the same stay, my brother went with other cousins for swimming in the nearby river. They were very fond of diving contests, although the elders always warned them of the unevenness and varying depth of the riverbed. It was an unfortunate day for my brother. Not knowing that he was standing over a shallow portion, he jumped headlong into the water. His head struck a jagged rock protruding from the riverbed. A cousin of mine brought him back unconscious; his head tilted backwards, his body covered with blood. The poor child was only eleven at that time. I have not witnessed a more terrible scene in my life. My father rushed him to the local hospital from where he was taken to the city. The news came that he was being sustained by machines and was still unconscious. I went to see him. He did not look the same. Overwhelmed with monitoring devices and tubes, he lay deep in a helpless sleep. I rushed back home where my mother was already out of her senses. I returned to my God and earnestly prayed for my brother’s recovery because he was the one who always listened to me.

“I prayed day and night. I would hear a voice in my dreams assuring me that my brother would be saved. Then I would watch him slowly waking from his long sleep. Once, I dreamed that I was standing before a long tunnel and was almost blinded by the radiance on its other end. I heard my brother’s voice asking me to follow him. What do we not envision when the integrity of our mind is at stake! It was not so easy to part with my closest companion.

“My brother underwent a series of operations each bringing new hopes and apprehensions. He was in a coma for several months. Not once did he open his eyes, but he was kept alive nevertheless. After some time, I came to terms with the situation and felt that he should be spared such a meaningless existence. In ways, it is better to part with life before one parts with vitality. One should not want to linger on when necessity demands otherwise. Besides, clinging to life like a leech is unseemly. But for someone being sustained so helplessly by an external will, wanting and not wanting lose their significance.

“One day, my brother’s condition worsened. The doctor took my father to a side and talked to him. My father assented to the decision of not forcing life into a body that had lost its soul long ago. After a few hours, we were allowed to go inside. My brother was still in his endless calm. Only his hands had grown colder and his bosom heaved no breath.

“We went to the village for the funeral. Relatives and family friends came. As happens in families, all were not on good terms with each other. Even the ones not so well disposed towards us were moved in the face of this untimely demise. It made me wonder when they wept and I myself could shed no tears. The night after the funeral, I saw my brother again in a dream. He was sitting beside me in a corner as other women raised laments around the open coffin in the center of the village courtyard. He asked me in a concerned whisper as to why some of the women were crying but shedding no tears. Putting my arm around him, I told him that tears run dry when one has wept for too long. Then he asked why I myself was not weeping. I still remember that I held him in my arms and cried so much as I have never cried in my waking life.

“Everything changed for me after that. I would feel very lonely. My parents too felt desolate. During the next summer vacations, we went to the village again. The cousin who had brought my brother home was a year older than me, but we never were good friends because he had been too boisterous and wild for my liking. But after the incident, my heart had softened. I often used to sit on the riverside where my brother had injured himself. One day, that cousin came and sat by me. I had almonds in my hand. Some of them were bitter, so I tasted them before eating. By the time he came, only the bitter ones were left. I don’t know why the prank occurred to me, but I offered him some. He took them and started eating. I waited for him to spit them out and get back to his belligerence, but he went on munching without a frown. I asked him how they were. ‘Excellent!’ he said. I told him to spit them out. I took the rest from his hand and threw them away. I held his hands and told him how miserably sorry I felt over such mischief.

“After that, we were inseparable. He would bring me books and we would read them together. We would often recollect the time that brought us closer. He used to say that he did not kiss me that day because he feared it would have tasted bitter. He proposed to marry me and said how he could not imagine living without me. His parents talked to mine and there was nothing to hinder the happy union. We lived well till we were in love. Later, he returned to his former inconstant nature. His interests were different from mine but our children held us together and I did not wish a better situation. The rift widened only when my husband became completely unreasonable. His feelings I could understand and tolerate, but he was not very good at restraining himself.”

Here Zareena stopped. Her expression changed little as she related her story. Only her eyes, beautiful as they were, occasionally betrayed some emotion. To Ahriman, any other topic seemed trivial and wanting to know more improper. He was still plagued by the question of her children which she so conveniently put aside, every time their name was mentioned in some other context. But who was he to probe further?

7. Ahriman’s efforts to learn music well had come to nothing. Now he was trying to return to his professional career. He had applied for a number of positions in other cities and had to travel for the interviews. What seemed insignificant to him was not disregarded by everyone: the details of his previous employment made a negative impression and he was refused work politely but firmly.

Ahriman’s soul was overfull with an elevated notion of life cultivated by his sublime quest, but that it pointed nowhere and everywhere made him feel giddy. We are usually expected to talk of experiences which are palpable through events of the day, and Ahriman had little to relate of his apparent inactivity. Reading this book and that, rereading another one and wandering through a maze of contemplation, what could he say to signify his role in life? Some friends simply and aptly deduced that he had become lazy. Those who were not too sure what to make of his resignation were converted to a more solid opinion by the argument that anyone at play would like go on playing and yet one could not say that such activity was in any way productive. These were the ones who equated drudgery with productivity, and they were not altogether mistaken.

After an absence of two weeks, Ahriman met Zareena in poor health. She came from the bedroom to receive him, as the maid was not there, and asked Ahriman to be seated in the lawn. She told him that she had had a chest infection and fever which were causing her weakness. Ahriman was alarmed by her appearance. Her dress was hanging loosely upon her shoulders. Her eyes had also grown dim and the skin looked as if stretched upon the bones of her face. She went inside and returned wrapping herself in a shawl. As she sat down, Ahriman exploded with his unending advice: that she should not come outside in the cold; that she should try to eat more and take care of her health; that she should see a better doctor, and so on. “Please take some rest, Zareena, and tell me if I can be of any help to you,” said Ahriman half rising from his chair. Zareena motioned him to sit down. She coughed several times saying she was taking good care of herself. As was often the case, Ahriman stayed silent when Zareena did not speak. He loved her with all his heart but a certain respect kept him from saying and asking too much. She had maintained her reserve, not allowing him to enforce even his goodwill upon her.

It was growing dark. The brick walls appeared more deeply red in the light of the setting sun. The cold air chilled Ahriman’s heart. He looked at the tall silver oaks; their shadows too appeared grimmer in the dusk. Little of what it all made him feel made sense and yet few things he had felt so deeply. He looked at Zareena. She had rested her head on one hand with the elbow on the arm of the chair, and was gazing into the distance with a fixed but feeble stare. His apprehension was reduced somewhat when he saw the calm on her face. It seemed as if she were petrified in her serene posture, not imposing her will, thoughts and longings on anyone or anything around her; not seizing voraciously the impressions that passed before her senses, but rather experiencing a faint joy in letting them pass.

8. The next day, Ahriman returned late at night from some work that his father had assigned him. He had not seen Zareena for the whole day. He wanted to go right then, but thought it would seem very awkward. He went to sleep at daybreak. Waking at noon, he hurried to get dressed and went straight to Zareena’s house. He rang the bell; no one came out. He waited and rang the bell again. It was loud enough to be heard outside, but there was no response. Her car stood in the porch and it was not probable that she would have gone somewhere. The gate was closed but unbolted; he decided to go inside and knock on the main door. He knocked and nobody answered. He called out for the maid and then for Zareena, but there was complete silence. He turned the doorknob and the door opened. There was no one in the gallery. He stood in front of Zareena’s bedroom door and knocked again. After some hesitation, he turned the doorknob to see if it was locked. It wasn’t, and he could scarcely believe what he saw when the door creaked open. Zareena was in bed and her eyes were closed, but she did not look asleep. Her left hand was dangling from the bed. He flung himself at her side and held her hand. It was as cold as the marble floor. He searched for her pulse but could not find it. He removed the blanket and placed his hand on her chest; there was no beat, although her body was still warm. He knew what had happened. He sat there motionless for several minutes watching her, as tears trickled down to reconcile him to the situation. He rubbed her hand as if trying to lure back the life that had scarcely left it. He stroked her hair still wishing that she would wake up from her weary slumber. He blamed himself for being so careless about her visible deterioration. He thought he had had a preamble of this misfortune and that he could have prevented it if he had pressed her to his heart and begged her not to turn her back on life; that only his good manners had kept him from saving her. He rested his head upon her, kissed her bosom and soaked it with tears. All he heard was a deep silence. He kissed her forehead, her cheeks and then, as if defying all propriety and proclaiming his deep love for her, he kissed her lips. The lips were lifeless and left him cold, and immediately, he was repulsed by their bitterness, for they tasted just like bitter almonds. Now he was totally beside himself. How did he know that she was dead? Perhaps, she was playing a prank on him, or perhaps she was mocking him even after her death, just like she had mocked her husband in life. But she pitied her husband and she should have pitied Ahriman too. But how could he ever know all by himself that she was dead? He thought as he picked her up to take her to the hospital. Despite being of good height, she had grown frighteningly light and slender. He lay her in his car and drove away.

All things around him were like phantoms through which he drove his way on. “Where am I going,” he thought once again. When he remembered, he had crashed into another car. The windshield broke and his head hit the steering. He stepped out and went to talk to the driver in the next car, an old gentleman, who was also in some shock. He asked the man to forgive him and said that he would pay all the expenses if he would just let him rush the seriously ill lady to the hospital. While Ahriman pleaded, the old man took a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it onto Ahriman’s bleeding forehead. Ahriman’s car was no longer in running condition. The old man offered his assistance as they transferred the body to the other car. Meanwhile, several people gathered around them and watched. Two policemen came and when they roughly figured out the situation, they seized Ahriman by his arms and dealt him a few blows. They did not know everything before they acted in such a rude manner. One could have surmised that being men of action, they knew that deeper knowledge leads to inaction. They asked him questions; questions he could barely understand. Verbally abused, physically beaten, one thing went on and on in his mind: “What are the greatest men remembered for if not a record of a rich inner life which found expression either in their deeds or their writings? Man wants to signify his existence with his thoughts and his deeds; even if it be the most wretched deed.” Such elevated thoughts were interspersed between blows; he was in fact parrying the blows with his thoughts or else he might not have endured the insignificance of which he was being made painfully aware. And what would the captors signify if they could not even deal their captive a few well-weighed blows? You must have noticed, dear reader, that our friend, who was not after all a bad learner, was being taught lessons he could not have hoped to learn in a less coarse environment. Some of them he might have read about, but there is no counterpart to firsthand experience. In spite of everything, why did he go on contemplating and not resign himself to what fate had brought so vividly in front of him? This we will never know for sure, but to make things simple, we might as well call it an idiosyncrasy. After all, high-mindedness too is a state of mind. He wanted to cry out to Zareena that there was a thing with an even profounder influence on the senses than music: humiliation. Perhaps, music was the balm. It occurred to him before he could utter a cry that just because she did not make any mention of this did not mean that she had not realized this – she was in the habit of leaving half the matter unsaid. Somewhere in this delirium, Ahriman fainted.

He was in the hospital when he regained his senses. The head injury was nothing serious and required a few stitches. His parents came, and after some investigation, the urgent question in Ahriman’s mind was answered. The postmortem report confirmed that Zareena had died of cyanide poisoning. She had been suffering from cancer and had apparently committed suicide. On arriving home, the father did not say anything to Ahriman, and his mother too had become quieter.

Ahriman was advised to take rest; he agreed, as there was little else he could hope to do. The next few days were like an unending nightmare. He did not talk to anyone and remained confined to his tormenting thoughts and his room. Several images indelibly impressed upon his mind haunted him. Zareena was still very much before his eyes, now in her inexorable grace, now as a lifeless corpse. He could not reconcile the two variants. How could it all end so abruptly and in so ruthless a manner! He would think in his bewilderment. Tormented by bad dreams with flashes of the bittersweet kiss that still burned on his lips, he wanted to somehow flee himself.

9. Zareena was buried in the local graveyard. After days of anguish and confusion, Ahriman went to see her grave. Under the sun, he felt partly relieved of his sullen thoughts. The watchman inside the graveyard showed him the cobbled path under a thick shade of paper mulberries that led to the new graves. He was still at some distance when he saw a man and two children there. He slowed down and watched carefully. They were Zareena’s children, and the man he assumed to be their father. Mehernosh was lighting an oil lamp with the matches in his small hands. When the lamp started burning with a steady flame, he carefully placed it in a small niche in the gravestone. Mehreen was strewing red and yellow flower petals on the grave. The father was kneeling between the children with a rosebud in his hand which he gently placed on top of the mound. What the children were thinking was difficult to guess from their innocent expressionless faces but they still betrayed the freshness of spring flowers blooming all around them. Ahriman wished to meet them; he had not hoped to see them again. They too would be comforted somewhat to see him, he thought. But something occurred to him and he decided not to disturb the husband’s mourning nor stir the children’s tender memories.

Now he was going to see Sarah again. He recalled beautiful moments he had spent with his charming sweetheart, and was very pleased when he found her at home, wearing a pleasant smile and a pretty white cardigan. She greeted him politely and within minutes they were talking as if it were just another visit. Ahriman was very sober but still cracked an occasional joke at which Sarah smiled with a calm which Ahriman had never found in her temperament. Just each other’s sight made them happy and for a long time they drifted lightly through a world of recollections. An hour passed but both of them were least compelled to bring up the question which could not be evaded forever. Eventually, Sarah did ask him what had prompted his visit.

“Nothing in particular,” said Ahriman. “I just wanted to see you again.”

“Well, what can I say? You come when you want, you leave when you want, and now I see you again with some other want bringing you here,” said Sarah, giving up her pleasant stance.

“Please, don’t be so rude to me,” he replied. “I still don’t feel that the decision of severing our relationship was altogether wrong,” he said without knowing what he did or did not feel. “It will favor you in the long run. What good could it be, if you had bound your future to a soul mate so tottery on his legs? You must have heard it all. But it’s true that there’s no one else I could see in such a pitiable state.”

“I felt very sorry when I heard about the sad incident. I wanted to talk to you, and console you. But then it occurred to me that you would have considered me a girl too clingy to understand that when an affair is over, the best thing to do is to stay away. As I’ve suffered much on account of being in love with you, I did well to follow your advice. Now why do you want to renew the pain which I’ve hardly begun to overcome.”

“I’ll never be able to justify the guilt of hurting someone so gentle as you. But I still think it was wise of us to part at that time.”

“I can see you have become a true philosopher! And I’m sure no one can moderate pretty compliments so well with objective analysis!” said Sarah with tearful eyes. “Where were you all this time? Can you imagine the pain I felt at being abandoned so casually by someone I loved more than myself? And then you return to philosophize with me! Please don’t strain your brains any further and leave me alone!”

Ahriman stood still, looking at his beloved with imploring eyes. He sorely wished that she would relent, but she had turned her head away and was only casting sidelong glances to see if she had made herself clear enough. Ahriman had to leave. He could not tell her that the pain he felt was no less only because it lacked immediate expression. Grieved at heart and sick of his logical explanations, wearied by despair and gnawed at by his own demons, he could think of no better refuge than his village.

10. The peace at village did not make him feel any better. For hours he paced back and forth in the empty courtyard of the manor-house and looked with a weary gaze at the familiar cracked walls of the watchtowers, but they failed to provide him asylum from his inner turmoil. Just like a procession of happy moments, misfortune also has a way of bringing countless wretched thoughts in its train. Despondency took hold of him again. He felt he had squandered his youth in daydreams and made others suffer for them – especially Sarah. Undermining his parents’ expectations, he had brought himself to no advantage. His favorite maxims and verses meant nothing to him. Impulsively, he went to his room and took out a gun from the closet. Soon he was on his way towards the open fields. He walked on without looking around so as not to be detained by acquaintances. Night overtook him when he reached the Bodhi tree and when he thought there was no point in going further. Leaning against the tree trunk, he wearily slid down to the ground. It was dark and quiet; only occasional howls of the wolves could be heard in the distance. The moon shone clearly in the pond at his feet. The image would be blurred only when ripples were stirred by some small creature or a breaking bubble. He could see the silhouettes of the trees and the long straight path flanked by the fields on which he had walked to this lonely spot. Inside him was brewing just one thorough conviction – he had no right to live on. The air around him was so conducive of such reflections that he held the gun to his forehead and started watching the gaping darkness through the muzzle. There he found thoughts more agreeable: the sweet prospect of death smiled at him with greater reassurance. “Only a trigger’s pull away from all my pain?” he thought. He had gone cold to his own feelings and thought he could at any moment cede his existence to death’s gentle womb which she has never grudged any human being, but he also took a strange pleasure in delaying the final deed. He could sense the kiss of death yearning for his smooth forehead, but he smiled as if expressing contempt for hearts and kisses too easily won.

Amidst this spell of self-mortification, when all his senses were heightened to relish the last moments of life, another triviality struck him. He caught a whiff of burnt gunpowder from the muzzle of his gun – something he was cheerfully accustomed to since childhood. Contrary to his expectations, the intractable coldness fled him and warm reminiscences returned from the time when the whole world was like a puppet play prepared just for his sake. He felt like a child again – one who has opened a naïve eye to the outer world; to a world which only holds a peculiar fascination for him. Everything attracts him; he shuns nothing and fears no repercussions for his lighthearted experiments. He knows no jests because he does not need them. Everything follows from an earnest, sweet, divine selfishness, from the eternal child-spirit which overflows with a will to thrive at any cost – at the cost of others if need be.

What could Ahriman do now? He was not ready for this change which had suddenly seized his entire being. And now just like a little, disappointed child, his heart had grown so heavy that he broke into a sob and wept very, very bitterly. He cried and went on crying like a little child, his face buried in his hands, as if to keep the brilliant moon and the stars from stealing a glimpse of his immense grief and shame.

For all his sorrow and despair, and the images of death that had loomed up drearily in his mind, he could not bring himself to end his life.

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