23 March 2016
A short story
The young shadows gather.
They have come to listen to the greatest of their seers, the philosopher, eschatologist, metaphysician, mathematician, psycho-historian, stainologist, and, alas as the world knew, serial philanderer, the feigningly meek Umbra, ‘U’ to everyone on campus.
They sit at his feet, leaving respectful light between them.
“I want to speak of other worlds,” Umbra begins. “We know that our universe is complete, whole, self-contained. And we know this because if we begin at one point and travel in a straight line we will eventually, though it may take more time than we have in several life-times, even a number approaching an infinite number of lifetimes, we will return to the same spot. When we look forward in a straight line – and who can look in a crooked one or around corners? – we are looking at the backs of our heads.”
“I see it,” says Flatso, the joker of the pack. A few of the pupils titter.
Too early for jokes. U pauses for effect. In front of him sits Penumbra, the girl they call ‘Penny’, forty years his junior on whom, all the students knew, he has a desirous, despairing, hopeless eye. After several weeks of these al fresco lectures, they have been observed cloistered together. She sometimes stays behind after the rest of her group have left pretending to discuss some obscure part of a thesis she is developing. Penny isn’t interested in the more abstruse questions of mathematics and eschatology. She is doing a thesis in psychology and is not required by any Shadow University rubric to attend U’s lectures, informal discourses or tutorials. But she appears at them regularly and the look in her eyes, which was one of awe at first, an awe which has now turned to respect and wonder as her understanding has been jolted, taken by surprise by something he has said.
His words, his voice, always linger with her long after they are gone.
In the nights, when all creatures merge into the smooth ocean of the dark, waiting for light to give them life again, the words reverberate in her mind – footfalls in the echoing corridors of her memory.
At first she denied the fascination. As the weeks and months went by she gave herself to it and found the very surrender exhilarating. And now she can’t bear to be separated from him for a moment and wakes up longing for it to be Noon and The Foreshortening, the time he’ll wander from his reading and writing into the grounds and allow who will to find him, the time he will begin his discourses.
“So we come to the conclusion that the universe is circular, because only on a circle do we come back to the starting point by journeying forward.”
This is startling, new. U gives his pupils a few seconds to digest it.
“But we have moved ourselves into a contradiction here, haven’t we? Has anyone identified it?”
“Yes, U,” a hand shoots up. Chhaya, the Indian.
“By going in a straight line we have performed a circle, paradox?” Chhaya asks.
“‘Performed’ is good,” says U. “And do you see what that paradox could mean?”
“That straight lines are curved?” Chhaya ventures.
“No, a straight line has to be straight that’s why we call them that. That’s how we see them. Definition. But what if space itself is curved? Then whatever is straight in that space can return on itself?”
He lets the thought sink in. Penny is all eyes. This may, in the mathematical world be commonplace but it is a fascinating way of speaking. “Whatever is straight in that space can return on itself.” This, thinks Penny is not the mumbo-jumbo of the yogics and tantrics who also infest the campus and distort shadows into balls, but the mysticism of science, of real things.“If space itself is curved we can’t conceive it. It’s like harassing your mind about infinity. You’ll never get there. Like imagining a stick with one end. Can’t be done, my friends, My captains and my Queens. That’s because we are merely two-dimensional creatures. Now consider this. Just this. There may be a third dimension.”
Again he pauses, but his words have hit home.
“We know length and breadth but we don’t know a dimension beyond that. I am not saying anything very complicated, only that we can’t conceivably escape our space – we can move about in it. I can go this way and that that’s all the ways available to me”
He demonstrates by shifting to the left and then right and then back.
“And yet there may be, mathematically has to be, another world out there, a three dimensional world and then a fourth and then a fifth and so on.”
“And will there be – I mean are there creatures in this third dimensional world?” Penny asks.
“Probably not, who can say,” U replies. “I can only tell you who can’t say. Us.”
Chhaya is thinking. Her forehead wrinkles when she does.
“Does that mean that we turn corners and move at angles even when we think we are going in a straight line?”
“Quite possibly. It depends on the contours of space. If they are without wrinkles, we travel as we think we do, if not we are in for a bumpy ride but we don’t notice the bumps because we have no perception, can have no perception, of anything outside long and broad – our whole space. Or the whole of space.”
“They are watching us,” Flatso pipes up. The other students laugh, they know whom he means.
Even U smiles. “Right. Maybe they are even now observing us, or controlling us in some way,” he says, “And they in turn are being observed by creatures of the fourth dimension and so on into an infinite regress – like the picture of the man who holds up a packet of Quaker Oats on a packet of Quaker Oats, on which packet is the picture of a man holding a packet of Quaker Oats and so on…”
He says ‘so on’ too often, thinks Penny. She is going to point it out to him. It indicates that he assumes everyone else is on his trip but she knows she is the only one really riding the slurs of his rhythms and phrasings.
“So would these third dimensional creatures be able to, like, answer, like, the metaphysical questions?” one of the other girls asks.
“Such as what?” Chhaya challenges her.
“Does God exist? Or are the three-dimensional creatures themselves what we call God?”
“Not an unfruitful line of reasoning, actually,” says U. “It depends on what attributes you assign to the concept of God. Does he create you? Is your existence dependent on him, are you made in his image and so on…”
He’s done it again, Penny thinks and her nose wrinkles in disapproval.
“I don’t believe in God,” Chhaya says. “Not that kind of God. But there are other metaphysical questions. About this constant unpredictable birth and rebirth every few seconds or every day and the big question of the difference between, or separation, of light and no-light.”
“Good questions, no answers,” U says. “We won’t even attempt any today. That’s it. Tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow, we can consider the equations that point to more dimensions, so the ones who don’t want to absorb the maths can stay away. OK Flatso?”
The others laugh as the informal class disperses.
Penny stays sitting where she is, as unmoving as the yoga teacher had demonstrated.
Chhaya retreats across the lawn but she can still hear the words they are exchanging.
“Good questions, no answers,” U says to Penny when he thinks everyone else has dispersed.
“You haven’t answered my question,” she says.
“Listen Penny, I have thought about it. You are young, many days and lives to go.”
“I told you, I don’t want them, I want you.”
“I want you too, as I’ve never wanted anyone before,” he says.
“I don’t need flattery or persuasion, you know,” she says “I want to do it.”
“Can we talk it over? I want it too but…”
“There is nothing to talk over,” she says. “If you don’t want me, just say it. I’ll go away.”
“How could I say that? And lose you?”
“Then don’t say it. Just come here.”
He is still as a rock. Chhaya sees her outline approaching his and, in a gentle slow movement, like a cloud crossing the sun, she merges into him, completely, entirely.
~Farrukh Dhondy is a writer, playwright, screenwriter and columnist. Born in Pune, India, he lives in London. His latest book Words: From here, there and everywhere was published by HarperCollins India in 2015.