Today they were to launch the ship, and excitement ran high in all the kingdom.
For years now, the ship had been in the making, on the flat plain south of the capital, her great hull rising slowly skywards as thousands of workmen swarmed over her, cutting, hammering, scraping and shaping.
And as she grew, the plain round her, formerly bare, became part of a sprawl – for the workmen needed somewhere to live, and since they brought their families with them the women and children needed to be housed, too. And even though such things as sanitation and health care were obviously superfluous for migrant labourers, they had to be fed, and this meant there had to be food markets and coal suppliers. And, of course, labourers did need somewhere to unwind and spend their wages, so there were sellers of cheap strong liquor and gambling dens, and prostitutes who plied their trade in dark corners. So, within a short time the ship had become the centre of a slum.
It was a noisome and filthy slum, but unlike the thousands of others dotting the kingdom, it had one focus, just one purpose: the building of the ship. She grew by the day, towering skywards until her bulk threw a shadow like that of a hill, until at night she blocked out the lights of the city on the horizon.
For so long now had the ship been in the building that the older children of the original labourers were now at work on her, their hands having learned the skills over the years. Most had been apprenticed to the job by their fathers and trained under them. A few had perforce taken over when their fathers had been killed or maimed on the job, and there had been quite a few deaths and more injuries. Death while working on the ship was a blessed death, and required no payment of compensation, so the children had had to go to work or starve. And work they had, and some of them had been thinking of beginning to train their children in the craft. But there wasn’t going to be time for that, because the ship was finished at last, and tonight she would be launched.
This was an occasion of tremendous significance through the kingdom, for whether old or young, rich or poor, in their way everyone had been affected by the ship’s construction. Some, like the labourers in the slum who had built the ship, the suppliers of raw materials which had gone into her construction, the astrologers who had plotted the auspicious moments of every stage of her construction, and the Vedic engineers who had fashioned all the angles and curves of her design had benefitted. But for the rest, she had been a crippling burden, for the tax money that had gone into her making had left the poor of the kingdom with no social services at all, and even the rich had suffered greatly. But none of it mattered now, because the ship was finished.
Today she would become a chariot of the gods, and go sailing away into the sea of stars, bearing the glory of the kingdom and Vedic science outwards for ever and ever.
The sages, the rishis, had been hard at work all night, plastering the decks with cowdung, painting symbols in sandalwood paste on the bulkheads, and getting everything ready for the great yajna. The priests and Brahmins had gathered, forbidden as yet to enter, but striving for the honour of touching the bulge of the hull for a moment, or smearing a little sacred ash on the ablative shield made of compressed bovine excrement.
As the dawn came, the sound of conch shells being blown rang out from all around the ship, and small brown children swarmed out of the hovels of the workers, chattering happily, to run around the legs of the adults. Even when they were sent away with a slap, they didn’t mind too much, because they knew there would be a yajna today, and afterwards laddoos for everyone to eat. The king had declared a national holiday, and it was time to celebrate.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the crowds began to gather, sellers of roast peanuts and fried pakoras vying for space with men who led along decorated sacred bulls for people to worship and pay a few coins for the privilege. Villagers, turbaned and hugely moustachioed, came from outside the city, riding creaky carts pulled by bullocks with long, swept-back horns, their women with bright clothes and covered faces sitting on the back of the carts, dangling their silver-ankleted feet in the dust. Even the businessmen from the city came, fat traders who shut their shops for the day, because all their customers would be here anyway, and because the ship was a vehicle of the gods and one would earn divine merit by looking upon it.
The astrologers were there, both the common ones to ply their trade among the people, and the royal ones, who would cast the ship’s horoscope and decide on the right moment at which it should take flight. They sat a little apart from the crowd, in a tent with a rope-pulled coconut-frond fan overhead, and a cordon of royal police to keep people from going to them and begging them to tell their fortunes, because the royal astrologers were the most knowledgeable ones in the whole wide world.
Of course the students of the Vedic Institute of Technology were there in force, clutching their notebooks, their queues of hair dangling from the backs of their shaven scalps. The royal police knocked aside people with bamboo lathis to make way for them, because, they were the hope of the future and could not be allowed to risk being harmed by contact with the common unwashed. The students barely noticed, their lips moving silently as they stared up at the ship, tearing their eyes away only to make Vedic mathematical calculations in their notebooks.
Sometime in the mid-morning, when the heat was growing and the sun already high in the sky, the king arrived. He came on his royal elephant, swaying in his gold-painted howdah, smiling benignly from below his immense jewel-encrusted crown, his face gleaming faintly with sweat. Behind him, the queen came on her elephant, travelling with her ladies in a curtained booth strapped to the pachyderm’s back, so that none could see her face. Behind them was the elephant of the crown prince, and, further behind still, the caparisoned chariots of the minister of ceremonies and other courtiers. The royal police cleared a path to the tent where the astrologers waited, and the king, crown prince and ministers joined them, wiping their faces and sighing in satisfaction at the wind from the coconut-frond fan. The queen and ladies-in-waiting were ushered into another tent, discreetly screened from view of the public, where they could sit back in comfort and sip sherbet chilled by ice imported from the distant hills for the purpose.
The journalists arrived, but stood around chatting to each other, because until the official ceremonies began there was nothing for them to do. They could have, of course, interviewed some of the people around them, but the common people weren’t newsworthy and nobody wanted to spend any time on them.
An hour passed, and it was almost noon. The sun beat down, and it was getting hotter.
At last the rishis emerged from the ship, with their matted hair and long beards, their beads and staffs, and proudly announced their work completed. The ship was now live, full of the power of the Vedic science which would lift it out into the sea of stars. She only awaited the final touches.
The yajna, and then the festivities, could begin.
In the back of the crowd, a boy pulled at his father’s hand. “Papa?”
“What is it?” The father was getting irritable in the hot sun. He hadn’t wanted to come, but his son had begged and whined, and his wife, seven months pregnant with their second, had ordered him to take the boy and get themselves out of her hair for the day. So he wasn’t in the best of moods, and his son wasn’t helping with his constant whining. “What do you want?”
“I want to see the elephants, Papa.”
“The elephants?” The man peered down at the boy. “What elephants?”
“The elephants,” the boy explained impatiently. “The king’s elephant, and the others.”
“But they’re off on the other side, and there are the police,” the man began to explain. “Look up there at the ship. Isn’t it much more interesting than an old elephant?” He might have said more, but was cut off by a yell.
“I want to see the elephants!”
The father knew his son and his tantrums. He knew the kid wouldn’t let up until he either gave in or resorted to violence. People were beginning to stare, and he didn’t want to start beating the boy in public.
“All right,” he muttered, shouldering his way through the throng. “Let’s see how close we can get.” Beaming happily, the boy followed, clutching his hand.
Meanwhile, the yajna had just started. The priests had crowded round the altar that had been set up opposite the tent and were chanting Vedic hymns and sprinkling ghee into the fire, shooting occasional suspicious glances at each other to make sure nobody sneaked in more powerful invocations or took the opportunity to earn greater merit for themselves in the eyes of the gods. And they were uneasily aware of the rishis hovering in the background, passing around marijuana pipes and disparaging comments about how the yajna was being conducted.
“It is time, Your Majesty,” the head priest called to the king. “You should now take your place by the altar.”
Sighing at the thought of leaving the breeze of the palm-frond fan, the king got up and waddled over to the fire. It was one of the things he didn’t enjoy about his position, and often wished that he could simply hand over this kind of job to someone else. But his ministers assured him that since he was divinely appointed to his throne, he had to take part in all religious functions, whether he liked it or not.
“Repeat after me,” the head priest said, smearing some ash on the king’s forehead, and began a series of tongue-twisting Sanskrit shlokas. Stumbling over the diphthongs, the king tried his best to follow.
After several interminable rituals, the head priest sat back. “We need a boy now,” he said.
“Yes, a young boy, who’s not yet attained puberty. A boy is absolutely necessary for the next part of the rituals.”
“Where will we get a boy?” the king asked, looking around as though there weren’t a few thousand in the crowd.
“If you had a young son,” the head priest said, “he’d have been perfect. But seeing as all your children are grown up now, I suggest we call my...”
Just then the chief of his police guard walked over. “Sire,” he said to the king, “we’ve caught a spy.”
“A spy?” The king raised his eyebrows. “What spy? Was he spying on the ship?”
“Well, of course, sire, but he was a bit cleverer than most of them. What he did was bring along a boy, as a cover of course. When we caught them, the man said they were trying to get a look at the elephants.” The police chief snorted in amusement. “At the elephants! Now who would believe that kind of tale, sire?”
“Where are they?” the king asked.
The police chief pointed with his staff at a squad of his subordinates, grouped around two figures, one tall and the other small. “What should we do with them? Drag them off to the dungeons?”
“Wait,” the king said. “Let me have a word with them first.” Relieved at the opportunity to escape the heat of the sacred fire for the moment, he lumbered to his feet. “Bring them over.”
The man began whining even before he was within clear earshot of the king. “Sire, Your Majesty,” he blubbered, “it’s all the fault of this boy, really. He wanted to see the elephants. What to do, sire, he’s my son and when he wants something, a father’s heart just can’t resist. I’m not a spy, I promise you.”
“A likely story,” the police chief sneered. “Elephants, indeed.”
The king ignored both him and the father. He looked at the boy and back at the head priest. “Will he do?” he asked, pointing. “For the yajna?”
The head priest licked his lips uneasily. Silently, he cursed the police chief. If only the officious busybody had waited one minute longer, he’d have suggested his own son for the ritual, and that would have cemented his place in the king’s favour. He wanted very much to say no, but he felt the eyes of the other priests on him, and the rishis besides. “I suppose,” he said reluctantly.
“There you are then,” the king said, relieved. He looked at the father. “We need your son for the rituals,” he said. “It will only take a very little while. After that he can look at the elephants all he wants.”
“But, sire –“ the police chief began.
The king waved a pudgy hand. “He’s not a spy,” he said. “Or if he is, I pardon him. Let him go.” Moving as quickly as he could, he waddled back towards the tent and the waving palm frond fan.
It was mid-afternoon before the yajna was over. By then, the plain had turned into a fairground, with snake charmers and rope-walkers vying for clients with dancing bears and the sellers of cure-all medicines. At last, the head priest flung the final spoonful of ghee into the fire and rattled off the last Sanskrit invocation. “Shanti shanti shanti,” he concluded.
A few workmen had been busy in the meantime, putting up a small stage on which a coconut was laid on a red cloth. “The Queen will now name the ship,” the minister of ceremonies said.
There was a stir among the crowd as the royal spouse emerged from her tent, surrounded by her retinue. She was covered in so much jewellery that she could barely walk, and the translucent hood hanging over her face made it difficult for her to see. One of her women guided her up the steps on to the stage.
“The Queen will break the coconut now,” the minister of ceremonies announced, “and she will name the ship.”
The queen broke the coconut and murmured something inaudible. The woman who had led her up the steps repeated it to the other women, one of whom hurried across to the minister of ceremonies.
“The Queen,” he announced loudly, trying to sound as though he hadn’t known it well in advance, “has named the ship Akash Ganga.”
Those who were listening clapped. A few conches blew. In the background, the noise of the fair went on.
“We proceed into the ship, sire,” the minister of ceremonies said, looking across at the king. “Take the lead, please.”
With an expression of mingled curiosity and apprehension, the king walked through the dust and up the ramp, the ministers, priests and rishis following behind him, and the Vedic engineers and journalists coming after.
Inside, the Akash Ganga was full of the mellow glow of oil lamps, the smell of incense burning mingling with the odour of cowdung paste and the aroma of sandalwood. The king reached out a fingertip to touch a bulkhead, but snatched it away at the last moment, as if it would burn.
“This way, sire,” one of the Vedic engineers said. “This is the way to the control room, from where our brave voyagers will guide the course of the ship through the gulfs between the stars.”
The king looked round the control room, with its astrological symbols on the walls and the ornately carved wheels and gears. “Very interesting,” he said. “How does all this work?”
The chief Vedic engineer, who had been hovering in the background for his cue, moved in smoothly. “This chakra here, sire,” he said, pointing at a wheel, “is the main control. By turning this, in accordance with the Vedic astronomical star chart on this cylinder over here, the ship can be oriented in whichever direction the commander wishes. And by pressing on this lever, this Shivalingam here, the speed of the ship can be increased or decreased.” He demonstrated. “Would you like to try?”
With a tight little smile, the king put his hand on the wheel and waited for the applause. “When are our astronauts coming?” he asked when the clapping had died down.
“Astronaut is a foreign word, Your Majesty,” the Vedic engineer said stiffly. “Our valiant Mahakash yatris are undergoing last-minute training in Vedic astronomy. They will arrive in the evening, well in time for the launch.”
“Just think how far they will wander,” the king said wonderingly. “Think of the things they will see.” He had a sudden thought. “What will they eat and drink on this long voyage?”
“They will not need to,” the chief Vedic engineer declared. “Our holy sages have developed techniques, after all, which allow them to live on nothing but air for decades on end. These techniques have been taught to the Mahakash Yatris. They will not need anything else but the air they will carry with them in this ship.”
“Um, good,” the king said. “Are we done here?”
“You’re due to deliver your speech, sire,” the minister of ceremonies said. “The media are waiting. This way, please.”
They ushered the king back down the cowdung-plastered corridors of the ship and out to the stage. The journalists took up their positions, looking up expectantly while the Vedic engineers and priests jostled for space behind the monarch, who fumbled at the papers he had been given.
“My loyal subjects,” he said, peering at the script and wishing he hadn’t been so vain as to have left his reading glasses in the palace, “this is a glorious day for our kingdom, and for humanity in general. For today, for the first time ever, the human race has opened a way to the stars. And it is our kingdom, and our ancient Vedic science, which has done this for us!
“The mlechcha nations,” he continued, “Amreeka, Roos, Cheen and the rest, said that we could never do it. They have, they said, no belief in our Vedic science, our astronomy and the ancient knowledge that has come down to us through the ages. But we have proved them wrong, haven’t we?” He glanced up from the paper. “We have made them eat their words.
“Tonight,” he said, “a few hours from now, Akash Ganga will rise up off this plain, and set sail for the wastes of the Milky Way.” He raised an index finger at the sky, and everyone looked up as though they could see the stars he was pointing at. “And she will do it with our Vedic science, on engines fuelled by cow urine, protected by ablative shields made out of compressed cowdung! She will do all that, which the envious mlechchas declared impossible!” Putting down the papers, he glared at the media. “Once again, we shall prove that our science is the greatest the world has ever known!”
“It was an excellent speech, Your Majesty,” the minister of ceremonies said, ushering the king back to his seat in the tent. “It was one of the best I’ve ever heard you deliver.”
“Yes, well,” the king said. “When can we finish this launch and go home? I’m tired and hungry.”
The chief royal astrologer came forward. “We have calculated the exact auspicious moment for the launch, Your Majesty,” he said. “It can be done any time between eight in the evening and eleven, but the ideal time is twenty-seven minutes past ten. Rahu and Ketu are in perfect alignment, and the gods will smile on the project.”
The king slumped in his chair at the thought of the hours still to wait, and waved a dismissive hand. “All right,” he said. “Fix the launch for ten twenty-seven, then.”
“We only await the Royal Preceptor, sire,” the chief Vedic engineer said. “The great rishi has not yet arrived. As soon as he gets here and gives his approval, we can proceed.”
“He is on the way,” the minister of ceremonies said. “He has been meditating in the mountains, but has been informed. He should be here any...”
“I am here.” With a voice like a clap of thunder, the great Royal Preceptor announced his arrival. Even to look upon him filled everyone with awe. His beard was longer than any other rishi’s, his hair more matted, his beads larger and heavier, and his staff more knotty. His fierce black eyes flashed as he glared around at everyone in the tent. “What is this that you are about?”
“Um,” the king replied. “We’re, uh, going to launch this ship to the stars. We only need your approval.”
“My approval.” The Royal Preceptor’s upper lip lifted scornfully, baring blackened teeth. “You expect my approval for this?”
“But, great sage,” the king stammered, “it is a momentous achievement for our Vedic science, and we will prove to the world that we...”
“You think we need to prove anything to the world?” the Royal Preceptor asked. “Our science is already the greatest, and our ancestors have already achieved everything that can be achieved. Your ship here – that will only follow in our illustrious forefather’s footsteps. They have already sailed the Milky Way. Your ship can achieve nothing new.”
“So you will not approve it?” the king asked.
“I can never approve it,” the Royal Preceptor confirmed. “Why should we simply repeat something our forefathers have already achieved?”
“You all heard the Royal Preceptor,” the king declared, looking around. “We cannot proceed without his approval. Therefore, the launch is cancelled. The Akash Ganga will remain as a monument to what our science has achieved, as a permanent symbol of our superiority over the rest of the world. She will be proof of what we could do, if we only chose to.”
Later, riding his elephant back towards the palace, he glanced over his shoulder at the hulk of the ship, towering over the slum, and smiled.
It was a smile of pure relief.
It was later that evening, and in a tiny house in the older part of the city, a heavily pregnant woman opened the door to let in her husband and son.
“So,” she asked, “did you have a good time?”
“It was horrible,” the man said. “Heat and dust and noise, and you wouldn’t believe the way our Bunty behaved. He got us both arrested as spies by the king’s police, and nearly thrown into the dungeon. Next time he wants to go somewhere, you take him.”
They both looked at the boy, who took no notice of them. He was staring out of the window, a dreamy smile on his lips.
“I got to see the elephants, from so close,” he said happily.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012