Tuesday 6 December 2011

The Mask Maker

Tom’s father, Odile, was well-known as the best mask-maker in the village.

So well-known was this fact that Tom never had to defend his father’s position as the best to the other children, most of whom were the sons and daughters of mask-makers themselves. It was a village of mask-makers, which supplied the tourist traps on the highway to the national parks, and even the big shops in the cities where the streets were full of noise and the lights were bright. The other kids squabbled amongst themselves over whose father made better masks, but none of them ever claimed that their parent made the best. Everyone knew perfectly well that Tom’s father made the best.

All day, every day, Odile worked in his shed behind the little house, cutting away at the wood, shavings piling up around his feet, or sanding, polishing, and staining the finished product until it looked as he intended it to look. Many of the other mask-makers divided the various stages of the process among themselves, but Odile never did that. He took much longer to make a mask than his competitors did, and earned correspondingly less, but his work was better. He was never quite satisfied, though, with what his hands had wrought.

Odile’s wife had left him many years ago for another man, and had never contacted them again to ask if her son was all right. Odile therefore now lived with his sister and old mother, Tom’s aunt and grandmother. The aunt was a bitter, sharp-tongued woman, jilted years ago and never having forgiven the world for it. The grandmother meant well but was bent and frail and seldom moved away from her stool in the kitchen. Neither of them was particularly disposed to ask about what Tom was up to, so he seldom went to the tiny village school. Most of his time was spent watching Odile work, and he’d already made up his mind to become the world’s greatest mask-maker in his turn.

Odile had tried to dissuade him many times. The work of a mask-maker, he’d pointed out, was hard and far from financially rewarding – which was why, he’d added drily, that Tom’s mother had left; carving masks didn’t bring in enough money to buy pretty dresses and stylish shoes. He had higher hopes than that for Tom. At least the boy had a school to go to and could have a future. Tom would listen, and because he didn’t want to hurt his father, would go to school for a day or two. But inevitably he would turn up again at the workshop, and his father would look up with a sigh and finally give him something to do.

Odile had once shown Tom a couple of pictures in a magazine his friend had brought back from the city. It had been printed in one of the foreign countries where everyone was white-skinned, long limbed and golden-haired like the half-naked woman lying on a beach on the cover. Odile and his friend had been laughing at the idea of white people coming all the way to this country so that they could lie around in the sun almost naked, while the locals were that way because they didn’t have enough clothes or shoes to wear and had to be out in the hot sun in order to work. It was funny, and Tom had been laughing along with them, but there was something wrong in the two adults’ laughter. It was as though they were laughing and not laughing at the same time.

The pictures that Odile had shown Tom were of a shop in the big city. One showed the inside of a huge shop, with long glittering expanses of glass, bright lights overhead, and smartly dressed girls behind shining wooden counters. The walls and shelves were crowded with things for sale to the tourists; long-limbed statuettes carrying shields and assegais, necklaces made of brightly coloured beads, red and yellow and green, and animals carved out of wood, giraffes and rhinos and the like.

The second picture was of a close-up of one of the walls. It was hung with masks of all sorts and sizes. Most were traditional, made in the pattern of ceremonial masks of a hundred years or more ago, with long noses and heavy-lidded eyes like slits in the wood. A few were more contemporary, meant to resemble stylised astronauts and divers as seen in the occasional newspaper photo. Anyone could have made them – maybe some of them had been carved in this very shed. It was impossible to tell. But one mask, though it was in a corner, stood out from all the rest.

It was not big – all the others were larger. Nor was it remarkable because of its colour, for most of the others were more brightly coloured and polished. There was something else about it, though – something which drew Tom’s attention and wouldn’t let it go.

It was long and narrow, and showed the face of a very old man. Under a headdress of feathers, the eyebrows were high and arched, the chin sharply pointed and triangular. There was something in the centre of the forehead, a mark which resembled more and more, the longer Tom looked at it, a third eye. In its parts or as a whole, the mask wasn’t particularly exceptional. But what came through from it, almost leaping off the page, was a sense of utter, primordial evil.

“Finished with the magazine, Tom?” Odile’s friend extended a hand, smiling, ready to leave.

“Just a moment, Uncle.” Tom looked down again at the photograph, fascinated. “Father,” he said, pointing, “what is this mask? I’ve never seen you carve one of that type.”

“Which one?” Impatiently, Odile pulled down the top of the page and leaned over to look. “This one? Or that?” Suddenly he went completely still for the tiniest moment. If Tom had not know him so well, hadn’t been tuned to his moods, he might well have missed it. “None of these masks is special,” he said brusquely. “Give the magazine back now, your Uncle Feisal is waiting to leave.”

“But...” Tom got no further. Odile pulled the magazine away. “Uncle Feisal is a busy man,” he snapped. “He has work to get to.”

Tom knew Feisal had just returned from a business trip to the city and certainly had no immediate work to get to. The unfairness of it stung at the back of his eyes, but he didn’t say anything. When Odile returned from seeing off Feisal, Tom had gone from the workshop.

Late that evening, after the meagre meal of cassava, Tom had just lain down on the floor of the curtained off portion of the kitchen which served him for a room when the curtain rose again, and Odile entered. He folded himself up until he was sitting on Tom’s mattress and cleared his throat.

“About that mask,” he said.

“Yes.” Tom kept his voice carefully neutral.

“You’re right; I’ve never made that one.  I don’t even know how one of them got to the shop there. None of those people know a thing about what it stands for, you can bet. All they care about is selling whatever we make to the white tourists at a thousand per cent profit.”

Tom didn’t say anything. Odile peered at him in the semi-darkness.

“You’re not to talk of what I’m going to tell you,” he said. “You’re not to mention it at school. If the priest at the church gets to know, he won’t be happy, and I don’t want you to get expelled. Nor do I want to have to pay a fine for telling you this. The priest doesn’t want us to have anything to do with the old gods. He barely tolerates my friendship with a Muslim like Feisal.”

“The old gods?” Tom asked, mystified. “What about them?”

“Everything,” Odile said, and there was awe and sadness in his voice. “Everything.”


Long, long ago (Odile said), at the beginning of the Universe, the Great Father made the earth, and the sun and moon and stars, and then He put people and animals and plants on the land and the fish in the water, and the birds in the air. And because everything needs a god to look over it, he called together all His children, all the millions of other gods, and bade them to choose what they wanted to rule over.

And all the gods came, and each chose what he or she wanted. Sekhose chose the sky, and she made it blue, because that was her favourite colour. Vihelie became the god of rain, and when he was happy, the earth got the proper amount of water from the clouds; but when he was angry, there was no rain at all, and famine stalked the land – or there was too much, and floods covered the fields and drowned people and animals alike. Kenie chose for herself the rivers, and Nushki the sea, and so on – each god and goddess found her own place in the scheme of things. Finally, only two things remained, that no god wanted. These two were Love and Hate.

No god wanted to be the God of Love, because love can be as painful as it is sweet, as divisive as it binds, as destructive as it is good, when used wrongly. And because human beings are so capricious, not even a god could tell how they would use the gift of love. And no god wanted to be the God of Hate, of course.

By this time, all the gods had made their choices, from the stars to the grass, except for two – and it was these two who had to decide for themselves who was to be the God of Love and the God of Hate. Both of them would gladly have foregone the honour, but the Great Father insisted on them choosing one or the other, and so they could not refuse.

These two gods were Ivulho and Tuyi. Tuyi was always happy and smiling – as small as she was jolly, as round as the moon, as carefree as the wind. Ivulho was thin and grave, but compassionate and deeply hurt by the pain of others. And it was one of these two who was to become the God of Hate.

“It should be Ivulho,” Tuyi told the Great Father. “For it is true that men and women can be left to hate each other on their own, and they do not require guidance for that – but hate cannot be left to burn by itself; it needs guiding and tempering, and Ivulho, with his great abilities, can do it better than I.” From which one can understand that her primary purpose was to avoid having to do any work.

“It should be Tuyi,” Ivulho responded. “For she is happy and joyful, as love should be; but her presence will light up hate and turn it into something else, sweeten its poison and make it less of an evil.”

They could not agree, and the disagreement grew so long and tedious that finally the Great Father grew short of temper.

“I will hold two straws in My fist,” He said. “Each of you will draw one; and the one who draws the longer will become the God of Love, and the other, the God of Hate.” It happened, then, that it was Tuyi who drew the longer, and became the Goddess of Love. And she – true to her nature – went flitting lightly among the fields and flowers, and quite forgot what she was to do, so people loved as they would have done had they had no god of love at all; capriciously, painfully, and all too often disastrously.

And Ivulho – who was full of compassion and empathy – became the God of Hate. And so it was that he walked through all the lands of the world, never resting, touching all with his shadow – sowing dissent and quarrels with his very presence, even though his heart brimmed with sorrow. So it was that he wept bitter tears as he sowed war and ruination, plunder and carnage amongst peoples and nations – for he did them without wanting to, compelled to do so by his very status as the God of Hate. As the years turned into centuries and millennia, he grew aged by the burden he bore; his face grew long and mournful, for he was filled with sadness at how easy hate spread when compared to love, and how, since Tuyi had dropped her duties and spent her time in frivolity and joy, there was nothing to counteract the hate that he brought with him always.

Then it happened one night that Ivulho came to a desert, which he had never encountered before in all his wanderings – a desert of black sand and broken rock, where nothing grew and there was not a drop of water or a cloud in the sky.

“I will stop here,” Ivulho told himself. “For there are no people here, no animals – and there is nobody I can infect with hatred. I will stop here, and make a home for myself in these barren wastes where I will dwell for eternity. That way, I will never hurt anyone ever again.”

And so he built for himself a mighty castle in the desert, with high bleak walls of black rock to match the black sands, as forbidding as the desert and as cruel as the cloudless sky. In the very centre of it was a great hall, without a single door or window, where Ivulho sat on a throne of black glass and resolved to wait out eternity. But it was not to be.

Savi was the greatest warrior his tribe had seen, and the greatest warrior of all the tribes around – so great that there were no opponents left for him to vanquish, no deed left to perform. And yet Savi was restless and unhappy, for he was in love with a girl who was the daughter of the chief of his tribe, and who paid him no heed at all. Savi would gladly have taken this maiden as his mate, and her father the chief would have equally gladly given her to him; but she did not wish it, and her father would not go against her desires.

“Tell me why you will not marry me,” Savi asked her at last. “Tell me that, at least.”

The maiden, whose name was Latabi, threw her hair back over her shoulder and refused to answer directly. “Does the candle beckon the moth?” she countered. “If the moth gets singed, then, is the flame to be punished for it?”

“You speak wrongly,” Savi said. “I am not a moth, but iron. I will not burn in your flame, but glow red and white with the heat of my passion. I am the day to your night, the rain to your parched thirsty earth. You need me as much as I need you.”

But Latabi only laughed and turned away. “That is for me to decide as it is for you to say,” she observed. “The night does not need the day, and the parched earth becomes parched again when the rain has passed.”

Then Savi saw at last that she would not have him; and a great rage filled his soul, and a desire to wreak vengeance. But there were no enemies left for him to fight, for they had all declared him the greatest of all warriors, and none would challenge him.

“I will fight and vanquish the gods,” he decided. “It is they who are responsible for my unhappiness, for they could have set things right for me if they had only cared. I will clear the world of them, and then perhaps we will be free to live our own destinies as we choose.”

So he gathered up his great assegai and his shield of rhinoceros hide, and painted himself for war; and he went out seeking gods to fight. But so terrible and fearsome was his appearance that the gods, one and all, fled from his approach. And without their guidance, famine and devastation, death and despair, lay upon the land, so that the people wept; but none dared try to turn Savi from his purpose.

Thus it was that Savi wandered from land to land, seeking, in vain, gods to fight; and at last he came to the black desert where Ivulho sat on his throne of glass, brooding. And because he had neither door nor window to look out on the world, Ivulho the God of Hate was entirely unaware of Savi’s approach.

When Savi the great warrior saw the god’s black castle, he drew close and demanded entrance, but got no reply. Nor could he see a gate that pierced the mighty walls of the castle, and decided that it was no mortal being which dwelt within. And then, for he was brave as the lion, he struck the outer walls of the castle such a blow with his assegai that they broke asunder, and he proceeded to enter into its halls and corridors.

For many days and nights he walked, his heavy tread echoing through the chambers of stone, and a lesser person would certainly long have abandoned the quest. But Savi was no ordinary man, and finally he came to the very centre of the castle, where Ivulho sat on his throne of glass, still unaware.

And Savi, finding a blank wall before him, struck it again with his assegai, and it shivered to fragments at his blow; and he passed into the bleak chamber in which sat the god Ivulho on his throne.

“If you are no god,” Savi said to the old man on the throne, whose identity he did not know, “do me obeisance, for I am the greatest of all mortal warriors. If you are a god, then prepare for your death; for I am here to defeat and kill you.”

Then Ivulho rose from his throne and stepped towards the mighty warrior. “I would not mind death,” he said mildly, “for it would end my misfortunate existence, self-prisoned behind these walls of stone. But think carefully, before you would fight me. The death of a god is not without repercussions on the world of mortal men.”

“I don’t care about your words, old man,” Savi said. “I have been seeking a god for longer than I can remember, for they must be defeated and destroyed for all the harm they have inflicted on the world, and the unhappiness they have brought on my own life. As I have found you, you must fight me, and be vanquished and destroyed.”

Ivulho thought for a moment. “If you wish it so,” he said. “Shall we proceed outside to the open desert where we can fight each other in appropriate surroundings? For this chamber, large as it is, seems to me small and cluttered for that purpose.”

“All right,” Savi said. “We’ll go outside.” And the god Ivulho made a motion with his fingers; the walls fell away; and the two of them stood on the black desert sand under the cruel sky.

Meanwhile the heart of Latabi had been struck by remorse, for she had seen how the anger of Savi had driven the gods away, and how the peoples of the world, and the birds and beasts, had suffered in consequence; and she had resolved to set out after Savi, determined to quench his vengeance, even if the cost of it was her own happiness. And she had followed him, from land to land, everywhere finding the unmistakable traces of his passage but never being able to catch up with him.

Then at last she appeared on the black desert plain, and on it she saw the great warrior in single combat with an ancient man of strange and terrible visage. It seemed to her that the old man was holding himself back, that he could have defeated Savi if he had wanted; but instead he had let the warrior strike him again and again, and bled freely from half a hundred wounds.

The chief’s daughter Latabi rushed to the scene and thrust herself in between the two combatants; and, throwing herself to her knees, she implored them to cease fighting each other and listen to her. And she pledged herself to the warrior Savi in marriage, if only he would refrain from his quest of vengeance.

Then the warrior Savi threw down his assegai and spear, and embraced her in his arms, and turned to leave; but the god Ivulho called after him.

“Are you not going to kill me, young warrior? If you are not, then permit me to kill you both, to keep you from future harm.”

“I have no reason to, any longer,” Savi said over his shoulder. “If I have Latabi, I have all I want and need. Nor do I see how killing us can keep us from harm, so I shall not permit that either.” And he took her back to his village, there to make her his wife, and the other gods came warily out of hiding, and all seemed right again with the world.

But the god Ivulho knew what a terrible thing had come to pass; his face grew even sadder with the weight of his knowledge, and, leaving behind the ruins of his castle, he resumed his wanderings, seeking always a place where he might make a home alone for the rest of time.

And it was a terrible thing, for, of course, having been in his presence, Savi and Latabi had had planted within them the deadly seed of Hate; and in time it grew to flower, in them and in their children, so that brother rose up against brother, and nation against nation, and tore the fabric of humanity forever asunder.

Nor could the other gods counter it; and in vain they pursued old Ivulho, and beseeched him to return and do what he could. But he only said that he had had enough of making a bad thing worse.

And then he moved on.


So,” Odile said, “you see why I’ve never made the mask of Ivulho?”

“Because he brings hatred with him?” Tom and his father were sitting side by side on the mattress, hugging their knees, their heads close together. Despite the close heat, the boy shivered. “I could not live like that. No wonder he went away looking for a place to hide himself away. But it seems to me that there’s enough hate without the need of a god.”

“True enough,” Odile said. “But the church detests the old gods, and the people fear Ivulho too. I wonder who had made his mask. Whoever it was...I don’t know if he did the right thing, or the wrong. I don’t know at all.”

“Oh, he did the right thing,” Tom said. “I don’t doubt it.”

Odile’s teeth flashed white in the darkness. “And why do you say that?”

Tom tried to find the right words. “This...hate. If you give it the form of a god, it becomes, at least, something we can understand. Something we can understand is something we can control. It seems to me that if keeping people from making the mask is not going to stop them hating each other, then those who want us not to make masks might as well be working to stop us from controlling the hatred.”

“Anything else?”

“I don’t know...I found myself on Ivulho’s side. It was none of his fault what happened, and it’s unfair to blame him for what he could not help. He did his best, and if it wasn’t good enough, others are to blame, not he.”

Odile was silent for a long time. “I’ll make a bargain with you,” he said at last. “If you go to school regularly from now on, I will teach you to make masks during the evenings and on holidays. After you get an education, you can choose what you want to do in life. Perhaps you can make masks which you can exhibit in the art galleries abroad, and earn more in a day than we do in a lifetime. Perhaps you will wish to be something else entirely. But it’s up to you, really. Do you agree?”

“Of course.” Tom paused a moment. “Do you know whose mask I will make first?”

Odile laid a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I know.”        

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

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