Very few Mahuts turned up at the funeral of my husband. Six – I counted them, including the funeral edifier who's also the head priest of our locality. I was pacing quietly in the empty graveyard, occasionally glancing back at my mother-in-law whose rotund figure lumbered along partly due to the fat she'd amassed all these years and partly because she was all sad at the death of her beloved son. I watched the tense twitching of her whiskers, several of which turned hoary, and her cold gaze reminded me of nothing but an old sort of enmity between two creatures.
Master Idi performed the ritual while I stood silently; my mother-in-law squinted at me in between her sobbing bouts. When a thin strand of grass was placed on the mound of earth of my husband’s grave as a sign of a believer in Aruh, our supreme lord, I was only thinking about Master Praavu and our last tryst and his impressive new stream of ideas that he believed would transform the entire course of Mahutian lifestyle and outlook. Not in the least I cared for any of these – if I truly expressed my feeling – for my husband’s death gave me respite from the subterfuge I would resort to every time I went to meet Master Praavu surreptitiously.
Wasn’t I a true devotee of Aruh when I foolishly loved Kora, a jolly handsome young Mahut, in my youthful days? I would curvet in veneration of the lord Aruh, squeak hymns to his names. What else did I receive from him – if he ever existed – except a deception from my young lover? When he ran away to marry that fat Inora I felt I was too drained to possess feelings such as love and tenderness anymore. It crushed my heart when I remembered my lost love for Kora. I felt sick to have achieved those qualities that made my life only miserable and nothing else. And when my love died, my love for Aruh also died – I lost my faith in religion and Aruh.
It was the time when I was first inferring from the revolutionary ideas of Master Praavu: We would obey the customs of our society as long as they benefit us. I was thinking about this while walking down our gutter-like thoroughfare in the capital Usha that saw Mahuts from all walks of life: Workers hewing out sharp edges of stone with their teeth; foreign traders driving their Sashi, a small humped creature, laden with sacks of rice, barley and other cereals, huckstering their products; grumpy-faced butchers flaying tittir, a delicious bird species of the forbidden forest, with all their four legs and teeth in such nimbleness that seemed almost a magical performance. A small rat scurried across the road with a sliver of meat in its mouth; its tiny legs were almost invisible to my eyes. How small it looked as I compared it with my size. I looked up at the big round sun and our round figure, how incongruously connected we were to the sun – one, the largest, while the other, one of the smallest creatures, having knowledge and wisdom to shape the world with all four legs.
Suddenly I was distracted by the sound of commotion. In the distance I saw a posse of Mahutian cops forcing some young Mahuts including Master Praavu into a large wagon. A concourse of livid Mahuts almost dipped their teeth into the tails of cops, encouraged as they were by the incessant cheering squeaks of their fellow Mahuts. The cops were trying to save their tails making angry shrills and threatening squeaks. Some of these young Mahuts had got their tails cut and trimmed very short, as they had been inspired by the philosophy of the revolutionary Mahutian leader Master Praavu who had declared that a tail was an unnecessary part of the body that consumed our energy and made us sloth. “An animal needs to be thin and slim, both in body and mind” – this I heard the neophytes say many a time at the intersection of Harita, which they now called Young Mahuts’ Intersection. They also argued that our aesthetics should reside in our mind, not in our tail, to which I thought I had my great support. Recently, they caused a great agitation among the reactionaries, the old hoary-whiskered, grizzly-backed, dull-witted Mahuts of our land. Master Praavu posited a new theory that we must try to stand on our two hind legs, changing the way we walked since time immemorial – walking and crawling forward with all four legs. He graciously pointed out that standing on two legs would free our hands – a revolutionary step that would change our entire course of civilisation: When our hands would be free, we'd be able to shape the world any way we wished. This was gruesomely opposed by the reactionaries who abhorred this revolutionary idea, arguing that, while walking, it was always important to feel the earth closely with all four legs; it forges an intimate friendship with Mother Earth, leading Mahuts to become humble and gracious not only to fellow Mahuts but also to all living beings.
I was thinking all these and was driven by the pull of a new life following the riot of these good-hearted acolytes of Master Praavu until my father discovered me in the crowd and took me back in the house. Three sun days later, I was married with a carrot-faced, pale-eyed, middle aged Mahut who tried to titillate me into copulation with bawdy dance and passé jokes. But I barely listened to him for I had already found better things in my life. I wanted to join this revolution and shape the world with my free hands, standing on two hind legs as master Praavu philosophised. There would be no place for my husband, this coward Mahut, who only knew how to coarsely win the heart of his wife. I knew he had bribed my father a big hoard of cereals, persuading him to marry me off without my consent.
My mother-in-law was bent upon harassing me from the very beginning. She knew of my support for ‘Cut the Tail and Shape the World with Your Free Hands’ movement. I smelled a rat in her words: To kill my revolutionary spirit she wanted to keep me busy in chores so that my mind would be occupied with menial household issues. One morning she asked me to use my teeth and help her build a new larder room, for she foolishly thought my children and I would be consuming a lot of food in her perceived not-too-distant future. She knew she was going against our custom that clearly stated that a newlywed female Mahut should not use her teeth doing any sort of household work till she passed seven sun days in her in-laws' house. To benefit from it, I mentioned the law to her and protested against her will, to which she exploded in a paroxysm of rage, cavorted in the air and unloosed her mean tongue, “Don’t you teach me customs! I know where all these are coming from you spoiled woman! You and your ‘Cut the Tail and Shape the World with Your Free Hands’ ass! Listen carefully. You cannot eat splaying legs idly in this house. If you don’t use your teeth and work, I will kick you out of the house.”
I was really pissed by her words – I could not tolerate her insult anymore. I squeaked in fury, whisked towards the front door and hopped out of that wretched house. I was maltreated by that old hag – I was not even directly involved with the revolutionary movement of master Praavu. I passed through dusty roads, between mouldering old houses of this neighbourhood that jutted haphazardly towards the street. So many Mahut children were scurrying to and fro in the street blocking my way. As I passed the alley and walked by the shops of grain sellers, Sashi saddle makers and stone polishers, I was thinking where I could go. I made up my mind quickly and ambled towards the end of the city where the town prison lay.
The prison was perched on the tallest mountain of Mahutland. Looking at it through a tightly spaced row of linden trees, my heart gladdened like the old Mahut travellers who first discovered this land with a presto. It seemed to me a lighthouse, a beacon where master Praavu was incarcerated; a glow of his radiant existence could be felt in its horizon, in the wind – in my heart. He would free me up from the fetters of my menial existence, allowing me to fight for a new movement that I truly supported.
When the prison guards stopped me at the gate and asked me whom I intended to meet, I had already calmed myself down. “Master Praavu,” I replied. “And what should I tell him if he asks after you?” asked the same guard. “Tell him a lady in distress has come, a lady who loves his cause and supports it from her heart.” The guard gave me a cold look and came back after a few minutes, and two different guards with long whiskers escorted me inside.
Master Praavu was walled in like a trapped animal by a mound of bricks with a single hole through which he was sticking out his head. They had given him a black eye, the tiniest slit of which was open. The corners around it and the nose were badly bruised. He was a sorry sight in every way; his whiskers were dust-smeared and unattended; his unharmed eye gazed at me sadly while I approached in teary eyes.
We did not know each other before, yet his gloomy eyes invited me closer as if we had known each other for a long time. Was it love that I had been bottling up all my life? I went very closer to him and rubbed my nose against his with love and sadness; I did not know how I did it. The guards kept watching us suspiciously. Master Praavu did not say anything as I was trembling with the excitement of meeting him. Only when I stepped back a little after a few minutes did he say in a very soft, friendly tone, “We will meet again. Don’t tell me your name now, because I want to learn it in a good time if they keep me alive.”
Three sun weeks later, Master Praavu was released from the prison and in an auspicious evening he asked my name very politely, rubbing his nose against mine, the way we did in the prison. “Lili,” I replied shortly, standing still with a hint, allowing him to think. He did not hesitate – he was one spirited Mahut who did not know how to pretend. He slowly mounted me from behind and unsheathed his Precious while I moved my tail aside for his convenience. We did not squeak – I did not say anything as he clawed his nails into my skin in a fit of pretended attack. I knew he was the wisest and the most polite Mahut who just happened to love leaving hickies on his mistress’s body during lovemaking. I enjoyed it with pain and a wave of ecstasy swept across the shore of my heart, so when he stopped I could feel the tingle of a hot teardrop in my eyes.
I became the first female member of ‘Cut the Tail and Shape the World with Your Free Hands’ movement and frequented master Praavu’s house against my mother-in-law and husband’s will. The Mahutian government incarcerated many young supporters of the movement that dimmed its spirit in public. The whole town was suddenly infested by rats. They would steal food crumbles here and there and race through the streets attacking old Mahut houses in large groups like a frenzied army. Master Praavu would say, “Look at these miniature versions of ourselves. Standing before them is like standing before a mirror. This version of us is neither aesthetically appealing nor of any use – Lili, see how we hate ourselves! When we hate these animals, we exhibit a sign that tells we are grossed out by our own reflections, our own selves. This is what I am truly occupied with since you met me in the prison.”
Little did I know then that these words would someday trouble me the most – and prick me like deadly palm thorns and turn my life upside down. I remained silent for it was a time for him to spread wisdom out of his radiant mind. He asked me after a while, “Lili, do you feel a strange kind of nausea sometimes?”
I nodded and replied, “Yes, Master Praavu, sometimes I feel nauseated even when there’s no reason.”
He did not move from his posture and asked once again, “I guess so. And are you sometimes afraid of meeting fellow Mahuts? Do their sight loath you? Are you even afraid of encountering your closest friend?”
I replied, “Yes Master, I am afraid of meeting Mahuts, even though they are my close friends or my relatives.”
Master Praavu nodded his head understandably as if he knew what I was going to reply. And for the first time he muttered two foreign words that I had never heard before: “P-si” and “En-si.” I asked their meaning to which he replied, “One day I would explain all these, Lili. I am not sure about them yet …”
Meanwhile the revolution had reached its peak in the Mahutland though master Praavu didn’t know the fullest details. A national day was declared when three thousand Mahuts would demonstrate against the reactionary politics and cut their tails near Young Mahut Square. Three thousand volunteers would be present on that day and help the revolutionaries cut their tails with a piece of edged stone which they would use for cutting off the tails from their bodies. It was even proposed secretly that they would add a new word to our national anthem and chant: “O Mahutland, our cradle of tailless forefathers” instead of “O Mahutland, our cradle of forefathers”.
There were many revolutionaries whose parents were stern reactionaries, who, out of sheer anger, started a pre-emptive campaign against their offspring’s whimsical rebellion – they shouted loudly how tails helped us balance our body, how we brushed aside little insects with it while moving. To remind the good old benefits of the tail, they started using it in a prehensile manner. They cleaned the fur on their tail, coiled it in a round manner, saying that it was a sort of new style, and started dying their tails with different colours to show that it could be fashioned in various ways. What a laughing stock they turned when they’d grabbed some ropes hanging from the Town Square trees by their tails to also show that the tail was an integral part of a Mahut, which, if cut, would be a sacrilegious act against the wills of lord Aruh. The most heinous part of their conviction was Master Praavu’s theory to stand on two hind legs, which they would find a profane act and would call it cautiously among their discourses, saying it a S*** thing, as if ‘Standing’ was a forbidden word. But we would gladly call this to be mantra of our freedom – the Great Standing on two hind legs would systematically shape the course of our lives and we would achieve it once we were successful cutting our tails.
The Mahutian government, led by a reactionary council, banned any sort of public assembly on the tenth Noon Day of the sun year, but as Master Praavu envisioned the good-spirited young Mahuts had determined to fight tooth and nail for their cause – they would not succumb to any threat. The reactionary philosopher Erzu asked Master Praavu a public question: If Master Praavu was a fervent preacher of this movement why his own tail was not cut or trimmed yet? Why was he playing a shameless double role?
I was also tormented by this question, for I was also preparing to cut my tail and become a true supporter of the revolution. Three sun days later, on the day of the mass tail cutting, Master Praavu left for his countryside house to avoid any commotion, and when we were in a Sashi-drawn hansom, I asked him, “Master Praavu, why’s your tail not cut yet?”
Master Praavu was adjusting his posture in the car, with his belly recently turned a little larger for he felt queasy having rested in the house alone. He was twitching his whiskers gravely. At a certain point he gave me an anxious look and clutched the footboard of the car with his tail so as to balance after a jerk in the bumpy road. He quelled his uneasiness and said, “Lili, I am in grave doubt. I feel I need to Mahutize this philosophy more – to plant the seed of revolution among them would require that we usher them to an understanding that we are meant to be free, free from all these prejudices and old customs that make us more and more weighty creatures day by day. One day I would make them understand all of this and they would all cut their tails and walk on their hind legs. Till then I am not sure if I need to cut my own tail.
Sometimes I feel these young Mahuts cutting their tails inmahutantly, but then I feel we need to push this from two grounds: Philosophically and practically – I mean I want them on the streets, too, demonstrating our true sense of capability. I want every Mahut to be free in their thoughts and deeds.”
Glimpses of the countryside were visible before us. I reclined against Master Praavu’s back and listened to the chatter of a river that snaked away beautifully. The wind made the trees creak and the voice of Master Praavu sounded to me like words of the Supreme Lord, Aruh. I decided to please him: I thought this was a meek version of him. Plebeians like us needed to support the great philosophy he postulated even though he hesitated himself to practise it. I wanted to show him how a creature looked without a tail. I thought it would make me feel lighter and give me more freedom while walking and thinking.
In my husband’s house, my mother-in-law would curse me every night saying, “Aruh will give you a grave disease, you would be a tailless Mahut woman one day – just mark my words.” It was the vilest curse in the Mahutland to say that someone would be tailless as the reactionaries thought the tail to be the most aesthetic part of the body. But I did not take her words to heart at all for I knew one day I myself would cut my own tail. Just when I decided to cut my tail, my husband died one night in a bad coughing bout.
Master Praavu grew restless as he heard the news – all the young Mahuts who had cut their tails now saw an even larger and darker tail growing in a frightening manner.
“Aruh, the supreme God’s revenge!” the reactionaries began to say. Some of the tailless Mahuts were shriven before priests that they had made a grave mistake by following the philosophy of a plebeian Mahut, who, out of ill-will, wanted to destroy the harmony in nature preserved by the Almighty Aruh. The reactionaries jumped on the opportunity and preached it as the triumphant return of the God Aruh in Mahutland.
There was a lull in everything after the death of my husband. Master Praavu in his rocker would sit sombrely all day long, without even exchanging a single word with me, even when I served him his favourite food – carrot crumble. But sometimes he would behave like a young Mahut, holding me tight and dipping his teeth into my skin, he said, “Lili, my Lili! You never know what I am up to.”
But there was not something right in the sun, for I felt a little under the weather in the next few months and noticed some changes in me – I started to shed furs on certain parts of my body. Those patches felt so itchy that, at night, I could not sleep at all. I got scared – was it my mother-in-law’s curse that caused this new disease? I was never sure about what to do, but of course I did not reveal this to her, who after the death of her son, became quieter than before, asking me to follow the religious ethics only.
I ignored it in the first couple of weeks, but the hairless patches kept spreading all over my body – to such an extent that I lost all furs near my ass and belly. Master Praavu, during his lovemaking frenzy, didn’t notice this for he was only fond of leaving love signs, hickies, on my skin.
After 35 sun days, when I lost almost all furs on my body and turned into a vile creature, my mother-in-law sympathised with me, saying, “Child, if this is not the time you didn’t turn to Aruh, then you are doomed to receive Aruh’s fire volleys and deadly breath when you die.”
I was so tormented that I could not decide on how I would show myself before Master Praavu. Would Master Praavu be able to make love to someone as bare as I was, stricken with a deadly disease? I remembered how he praised my fur saying the sebum that oozed from my skin pores was the most precious smell he’d found in the entire Mahutland.
As I entered Master Praavu’s house with such strong resolution of my heart, I saw him put his head against a small stone stool. He didn’t look at me but said in a newfound voice, “Lili, I was waiting for you all these days, why didn’t you come? You know what I found out? Like you, I too am deeply disgusted with myself. I think it applies to all of us – every Mahut of this land. All this revolution and this and that I advocated was for this nausea I had been piling up in my heart. No revolution can be good for us unless we comprehend the very nature of this nausea, the way it works; this nausea was eating away at my understanding of things: I couldn’t see it in its true light, in its true form. But now, as on a limpid rock-pool or in a lucid dream, I can see everything very clearly. We are frighteningly alone, Lili. We are nothing but a flickering consciousness, and it is only in this flickering moment do I realise my being – my Mahuthood. The devil that arises in us is for this emptiness – this aloneness. The absurdity of our existence can only be understood when we can divorce things from their names and when we face them in their bare existence. We would then discover that things are simply there, loathsome and fearful, and only then do we experience this nausea in its true kind. You can still feel this nausea in you even if you don’t understand all these nuances. Remember those words I told you once? ‘P-si’ and ‘En-si’?
He did not need my reply. He was excited as he moved unevenly, explaining to a ghost with a great verve, not noticing my presence in the least.
He continued, “‘En-si’ means ‘being-in-itself’ like rock, dust, hard objects – they simply exist solidly. They have no consciousness. They are bound by causal laws and casually determined to be what they are. They have no freedom, no awareness, except their bare, doomed and solid existence. On the other hand, Lili… on the other hand …‘P-si’ stands for ‘being-for-itself’ and it is like us who can feel the rhythm in their heart. But our consciousness of our selves is empty. We become conscious of us in regard to something, a mirror for instance, which confirms our existence when we look at it. But to be a truly conscious being, we need to be aware of a gap between my consciousness and its objects. I exist between I and the mirror I am looking at – I am only this flickering consciousness… Nothing else is true, Lili.”
Master Praavu loathed me when he became aware of my presence. I stood bare, empty without a single fur on my body, my skin that was pocked with his lusty hickies, his sign of love. Was he the same man who loved me boundlessly and premised his entire philosophy upon me? Didn’t he imply with his words that we are nothing but a creature whose disease, ill-fate, and agony are casually and absurdly determined? Then why did I saw this flickering of hatred and loathsomeness in his eyes that he was trying to conceal now? Was I woman of easy virtue, a chippy, to him? Wasn’t these love marks his and only his? Or was he thinking I was a hustler who roamed about in the streets asking other Mahuts to dip their teeth into my skin?
I couldn’t stand before him anymore as his flustered eyes kept saying to me, “I hate you, Lili, I hate you; you are a vile creature. Forget everything I said.” While he was regaining his composure, I bolted into the street, leaving him as he was – terribly disturbed and frightened, and doomed to his own thought.
Three sun days later, Master Praavu committed suicide taking an excessive amount of realgar before going to sleep.
Failing to get myself together after Master Praavu’s death, I was drifting here and there. The countrywide revolution was hamstrung by master Praavu’s death and the reactionaries put a strict law into action: If any Mahut was seen walking down the lanes of Usha without a tail they would be put to death under this special law without any trial.
Against the will of my mother-in-law, who thought I would soon be a religious Mahut lady, I frequented old places. In the wintry morning, beside the old Calendar Lake, I kept sitting hour after hour thinking about my life. As the sun made things before me very vivid in mid-noon, I saw small birds chirping in the far woodland. How they planned things with the sun! Year after year they came to these places thinking of this warm glow up in the sky that freed them from all other thoughts and made their hearts warm. Everything, every, single object before me was touched by the sunlight, and became as vivid as ever, as if drawing me towards a profound realization: Thoughts change with the sun’s eternal rotation. So my understanding differed from darkness to light, from morning to night – my thoughts journeyed with the sun all the time; it blanketed my being, my consciousness.
Walking by this lake, I would see birds of prey swoop down on the water to earn their day’s keep, ants scurry across water on small leaves to search something out of their instincts. Nobody, not even the wretched bare truth of existence, could return me anything or my composure of mind. It was only the big, warm sun with its bright, yellow rays that penetrated deep into me, down to the source of my disease and nausea, and returned my fur and let me live with a glowing heart once again. The sun that we eternally reconcile with and lose faith in.
Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He works with Arts & Letters.