Today was a good day, Luit decided. Today he turned 16. Today he became a man.
As soon as the sun came up from beneath the vast waters spanning the horizon like a giant yellow-red crab which he was told to avoid since his childhood because it was poisonous, Luit hobbled down a windy pathway, filled on either side with dense foliage of unknown trees and undergrowth. It was forbidden to harm the plants, all plants, whether they were edible or not. The Elder Mothers were working on the usage of even the most dangerous of plants for years.
But not today, Luit decided. Today, they were planning something entirely different, a secret ceremony. Tonight, inside the temple of the Goddess, there will be a ceremony, and he would be given a bride. His heart skipped a beat and he missed a step. He grabbed hold of a branch before he slid down the slippery rocks to the vast waters below. These rocks were submerged until recently, and the ebbing water had turned the surface smooth, like the skin of a newborn.
Newborns were a source of joy for the community, more than anything else, more than the meagre harvest of corns every winter, more than receiving a rare piece of new fabric, more than seeing the telltale signs of the water receding. This was why today was a special day for the entire community. Luit was the eldest among the new generation of boys, and the Mothers and the Daughters had been waiting for more babies.
As he trotted towards the fishing port, a rudimentary ghat amidst the boulders of polished granite on the East side of the tiny, rocky island the community called home, Luit was excited too, and he was sad. He was not certain who among the Daughters would be his bride, but he knew it would not be Juman, his first and only love. When they were children, they were inseparable, and they had promised each other that they would remain so. It was before he was assigned the task of collecting fish with Juman’s father, it was before Juman’s father flung himself to the water and never came home. In the last few years, they talked only occasionally. Luit knew she still loved him, and knew one day Juman would be his, but not before he had impregnated several other Daughters before Jesu turned 16.
Jesu, his partner, was waiting for him at the slop. He had a blanket of dry grass wrapped around his thin frame, to protect himself from the morning chill. On other days, Luit too would carry a blanket like this, but not today. Today, he was too excited to feel the chill.
“We have less work today,” Jesu said as Luit reached him, tugging the fishnet under the water. The net was heavy with the night’s catch. “I hope they are the good ones.”
It was the first lesson that they had to learn, identifying the good fish from the poisonous ones. It was all in the fin. If the fish had a reddish bright fin, it was good. If it was dark, the fish was bad. They did not even bother about fishes without a fin. They were junk, like so many other junks they hauled only to throw them back in the water.
“I know,” Luit said smugly, “Today is a good day.”
“I know,” Jesu added with equal smugness, “Today is your ceremony. You will get to drink the drink.”
Luit smiled, and suddenly he was diffident and ashamed, emotions with which he had rare contact. Suddenly, he was aware of his glistening nudity under the morning sun; the black thread around his waist and the slight piece of dry banana bark around his genitalia was no longer enough. He wished he had the grass blanket with him, to cover his shame. Of course, tonight he will receive clothes, real clothes made of cotton threads, not banana barks or grass. It did not help that it was the very reason for his shame.
“Not just that,” He sat cross-legged on the boulder and said. They could sort the fish later. First, he had something important to tell Jesu. “Today is the first day of the year, the first of January.”
“What first day? Today is just like other days. It cannot be the first day just because you are getting a bride.”
“No, the first day of the year.”
“You mean the beginning of the Cycle of Seasons, when Elder Mothers cook us a feast?” Asked Jesu, salivating. “I cannot wait for the ceremony tonight. I want to eat something else, other than the fish. What do you think they will cook tonight, dauks? I want to eat some meat cooked with salt.” Then he placed his right hand before Luit’s eyes. It had some berries on it. “You want one?” he asked. Luit did. Jesu took a large bite from his berry and added thoughtfully, “But Cycle of Seasons doesn’t happen until the days are warm.”
“Yes, I know,” said Luit. He only told Jesu about the Cycle of Seasons. In the community, men were not supposed to bother about these things. Their duty was to impregnate women, and maintain the household and perform their assigned tasks, fishing, and farming, whatever was possible amidst the rocks, collect fruits and vegetable and collect water. Although they lived on an island until very recently the water around them proved to be poisonous. If someone had it, he would turn blue and die in a few days time. Now, Luit’s grandfather said, the poison was settling down beneath the water.
The old man said in the earlier days there used to be vast water bodies like this, made of salt water. Those days their tiny island used to be a hill and surrounding the hill, there was a huge city. On the other side, there was a mighty river. Luit was named after the river, which, the old man said, still flowed beneath the poison water. The old man said when his grandfather, not a day older than 25, found himself here, he discovered a source of the river’s water in a tiny creek in a crack of the hill. The community had been using water from this source since. It was an arduous task and those who performed it were the most respected in the community.
However, Luit’s grandfather was the most revered among the men. He was the Guardian of the Past. He was the only man who could read. He had an assorted collection of worn-out books, which he valued above all else. He lived alone inside the Goddess’s temple. He was the only man who sat in the Council of the Elder Mothers. He was the one who assigned tasks to the men. He was the one who taught children the basics, how to count, the names of the objects around them and their usage and other assorted stuff.
And when he was in a good mood, he would regale them with stories from the past, the past before the water. The children enjoyed the stories, but they did not necessarily believe it. Who could believe in machines, objects that could fly, even to the moon, objects with which one could talk to someone who was not present there, objects that could speak like human?
“But, yes, it is similar to the Cycle of Seasons, but different,” Luit said. What he found out last night was so exciting that he had to share it with Jesu. “We started counting the Cycle of Seasons after the water. Before that, there was another system of counting the days.”
“They are just children’s stories. There was nothing before the water. The water was always there. Then we came.”
“No. I told you about the world. It is like the moon, only bigger. There was different countries, different people. There was water, but there was also vast dry land, where people created all kind of great things.”
“If it is the truth, where are those people? What happened to them? As far as I know, we are the only ones.”
“The water. It destroyed everything, but there are other people. You know about my father. He came from somewhere else. He left to find other people.”
“Your father was the spirit of the lost river. This is why you are so fair, unlike any of us.”
This was exactly what Luit was told all these years, until recently. At first, he found it hard to trust the revelation. There was a snug comfort in holding onto a childhood fantasy. He was the part of the water that surrounded their tiny island. This is why he jumped at the idea of being a fisherman. As he grew up, he spent hours and hours gazing at the green-blue surface of the water, hoping to catch a glimpse of his lost father.
This did not happen, and a few days back, his grandfather, the Guardian of the Past, told him his father was a human, not a spirit, and perhaps he would never return. He was from another community, which too had survived the water, and he wanted to know if there were others in the vast wilderness that was the flotsam of junk, which no one had any use. Desperate to make sense of this floating wreckage, one day he built a raft from objects he found around him and set sail. By the time the Daughters found him, not far away from the fishing port, he was barely alive. Luit’s mother was the eldest of the virgin daughters. She took him home and nurtured him back to health. He then stood before the Elder Mothers and told his story: There was another community somewhere in the navigable distance. They too survived the water. This distant community had bigger land, more people, and it was ruled by a man who was the God’s Chosen One. The entire community worked for this man. The lost sailor spoke the language of the community, but it was not his language. He gave a name on behalf of himself. The name was not repeated again. The Elder Mothers and the Guardian of the Past took the decision immediately. The sailor would be allowed to stay in the community on the condition that he did not mention where he was from and what his name was. The Elder Mothers turned him into the spirit of the lost river. And he remained a spirit for two seasons, a massive, beautiful man, hardworking and courteous, and very much in love with his newly wedded wife. Then one year after Luit was born, he vanished. He was building another raft for some time, and one day he took leave of his wife and newborn son and left.
“Why?” frustrated and disappointed, Luit had asked.
“He said he was missing his home,” the old man said. “For the first few years, we were worried. What if he had reached his home and told his king about this place? The king would surely build more rafts and come looking for us. Powerful men are likely to act this way. Therefore, we started the Army of the Daughters, to guard our boundary. The tradition remains. But your father must have perished in the vast nothingness out there. This is the most likely explanation.”
The story was incredible. However, what surprised Luit the most was the telling. Why would the Guardian of the Past reveal the secret to him now?
The answer led to the biggest revelation of all. He had been chosen to be the next Guardian of the Past. The training would take years to complete and he would start from the day he turned 16. It was a family tradition, started by the 25-year-old man who was the first survivor of the apocalypse, and it was handed over from grandfather to grandson. Tonight, at the secret ceremony, he will take a vow not to share this knowledge to another, other than the Elder Mothers, at the time of need.
There was still time for the oath, and he needed to tell Jesu at least about some of the things he had learned. He needed to share the secrets with someone.
“There are no spirits,” Luit said finally. “My father was a man from another place. There are people like us, beyond the horizon. We are not the only one…”
“But…” Jesu wanted to say something. He stopped. Luit was not finished yet.
“We count our beginning with the Cycle of Seasons, right? How many Cycles have we completed?”
“120,” said Jesu. It was a basic question. Every child on the island knew it.
“And before that?”
“Before that there was nothing. The Goddess, who is the Mother of the Sky and the Water created our ancestors, 17 people, nine women and eight men, eight couples and one Elder Mother, and offered us this place to live, next to her temple where she resides.”
“And her temple? It looks older than 120 seasons.”
“Of course, it is. You know the story. The Goddess built it herself, season after season. Then she felt lonely and she created our ancestors.”
“And you remember the stories the Guardian of the Past used to tell us?”
“Yes, but they are just stories. They are not true.”
“It's blasphemy,” Jesu said and looked around to see if anyone heard them, even though the chance of anyone hearing them was remote. “Don’t say such things. If the Elder Mothers hear you, they would cancel your ceremony.”
Luit smiled. Of course, it was true. He remembered what the old man had told him, “The Elder Mothers, the first 17 ancestors, created this myth for a reason, to sustain the community. When it all started, when the water charged in, it was a disaster. The men could not handle it, except my grandfather. He was anyway a scholar, who did not have much to do with the world outside. The women, on the other hand, were tenacious. They were adaptable. They adapted and created this world. It is just 120 seasons old and it remembers the knowledge of seasons immeasurable.”
“I know. Let me say this once and then we will forget all about it,” Luit said finally.
“Okay. What you want to talk about?”
Yes, what? Then he remembered. He wanted to explain to Jesu about first of January.
“The world was not always like this. There was a time when there was no water. No, there was water, rivers, ponds, whatever that means, but there was solid ground too, vast, beyond the eyes could see, made of soil. Those days, there was a place called Kamrup just about there,” Luit pointed his finger towards the rising sun. Jesu gawked at the blue-green water swaying in the breeze. He was not sure what he was looking at, and Luit was not sure if the story made sense at all.
This was the story the Guardian of the Past told him. There was a river. There was a hill. There was a city. The old man explained what a city was; Luit hardly understood. For seasons immeasurable, before 120 seasons, it was the truth. Those days, this tiny little island, their home, was the top of a hill. There was a name for the hill, now forgotten. On the hill was the Goddess’s temple. She had another name, now forgotten. Below the hill, spreading the horizon, there was the city. Whatever it was, it was filled with people, men, women and children, more people than one could count. Everyone wore clothes and they had objects large and small to help them in their work, and they had endless varieties of food.
“Those days, they had different ways of counting the season. They called it year. There were 365 days in a year and they divided these days into 12 parts, which they called months,” Luit droned on. By now, he did not care whether Jesu was listening or not. He needed to say it aloud whatever he had learned, to make sense of it all, if he could.
“The world is very old and vast. And people have been here forever. But the year people used before the coming of water started with the birth of a boy, who was supposed to take people to heaven.”
“What is heaven?”
“I don’t know. But this boy, you know what his name was? Jesu.”
“That’s my name.”
“That’s what I am telling you. Where did the name come from?”
“My grandmother gave the name.”
“That’s because she remembers. She would not tell you, but she remembers the other Jesu who was born in a desert.”
“What is a desert?”
“I am not sure what it is, but it is a place without water. Anyway, when the baby was born, it was year one. And when the water come, it was the year 2056, two thousand and fifty-six years after the baby was born.”
“What are you saying? You are not making any sense.”
“I know. I just want to share with you that this is a special day in many ways. It is not just the ceremony. It is also the beginning of a new year, which started with the birth of a baby you are named after.”
“Okay. Which year is it?”
Luit started to count. “If the water came in the year 2056 and if you add 120 more seasons to it, it would be 2176. Ah, today is 1 January 2176. Isn’t it something?”
Jesu did not react. “Let’s collect the fish and return. They may need us to help prepare the feast. Just don’t tell anyone else about this.”
“I know,” Luit said meekly and started to haul the net made haphazardly with different kind of ropes, not all of which came from trees. They collected the fish, most of which were thankfully good, in a grass basket. Now that he had shared the truth, at least the part of the truth, with someone, Luit was calm. This was all new to him. Over time, he will learn to keep secrets, he decided.
After collecting the fish, they washed the net and set it again, at the same spot. They would come for the next haul tomorrow morning.
But Jesu wasn’t done yet. “Okay, one last question and then we will not talk about it, ever again. If there were people as you say there were, where did the water come from? What happened to the people?”
The people drowned. It was an easy answer. The first part of the question was difficult though. Luit himself posed this question to the old man and the old man just rambled on.
What Luit gleaned from the rambling was this. The world was a big place. There were different countries with different kind of people. A country was like their tiny island, only much, much bigger, with lots and lots of people. And these countries were fighting among each other. The memories of it still lingered. This is why the Elder Mothers were worried about the arrival of the people from the community Luit’s father belonged to. And these countries had terrible weapon which could completely destroy other countries.
What exactly happened was uncertain. According to the old man’s grandfather, the 25-year-old scholar, the war went on for several years, with all countries in the world joining in. This country, where the 25-year-old scholar lived, was called Indi and it was fighting a country called Cina. There was a huge barrier between the countries, made of solid water. Somebody did something to the barrier and the solid water became liquid and covered everything, the entire world. This happened in the year 2056. There was evidence. After his miraculous survival, the 25-year-old scholar made a note of it, on the back of an old book with a pencil, both of which he had retrieved from the flotsam of water after years of searching.
Luit took a deep breath. In his retelling, the story sounded more incredulous than ever. Jesu looked at him for a long time and then burst into laughter. “You are a good storyteller. They should make you the Guardian of the Past.”
Oh, they have, Luit wanted to say. Then he stopped. It was not his information to relay. The Elder Mothers would announce the next Guardian of the Past once the old man was dead and his remains were dedicated to the water. Until then, he had to hold onto the secret. This, and more.
“Never mind. Let’s go and see what they are cooking for the feast?”
“I hope it is the dauks, roasted dauks with banana salt.”