|Jan/Feb 2003 fiction|
In that lacklustre way which characterises most of the world, Forneeso seems to be continuing on in perfect monotonous normalcy when Assak begins to speak of the "Awakening." That is to say that the inhabitants of this small road village with a reputation for producing gasoline blackmarketers are busy spying on each other, swapping bits of figmental gossip, while the occasional hapless motorist that runs out of gasoline in the vicinity gets cleaned out—amidst many mournful sympathetic tongue clicks—in exchange for a few likely adulterated gallons of fuel.
Though no immediately discernible enlivening change takes place, Assak's Awakening is soon on every lip. While some folks saunter over to his home to see and hear things for themselves, their reactions being as mixed and as varied as their dietary preferences, others stay away jeering and eventually deriding Assak's "Awakening" as "The Maddening."
A thin, generally likable shopkeeper of mild manners, Assak has little formal education. However, he has broadened or narrowed (his fellow villagers cannot agree on which) his mind with wide reading. Whether because of or in spite of this, he welcomes all to his home, even those who clearly visit merely to mock him.
To visitors to the man's home, and we should place ourselves in this group on this occasion, the "Awakened" Assak, on a typical evening, is never at a loss for words. We meet him now as he holds court in his front yard, his four-year-old daughter bouncing happily on his knees.
"Subject to his interpretation, either from within or without, there is always evidence before man. And the more significant of evidences reside within men, where they really live. Denying the presence of evidence is a futile effort, as it will out, given time and circumstance."
That is how it goes with Assak. He makes many unsure whether it's the language or the topic they do not understand, though, it must be admitted, there are those who are certain it's both. And yet some consider this the stuff of genius. For others, grotesque images of the madhouse present themselves unbidden. This babble of reactions, while silencing most, has quite the opposite effect on Kapsak, a gasoline blackmarketer neighbour of Assak's.
"I had no idea they awarded degrees in the shop or on the farm, Assak," Kapsak teases. "Or is yours a home-grown kind of professorship for which no degrees are needed?"
Bent on delivering his latest piece of wisdom to his small audience, our somewhat divinely inspired host (how else shall we put this matter?) carries on as if Kapsak has not spoken at all. Or, perhaps, he does take Kapsak's words into consideration.
"Since evidence reveals itself sooner or later, it is only a matter of time before everybody becomes aware of it."
"What evidence are you talking of?" Kapsak queries.
This time some of the other neighbours in attendance glare at him. Assak’s daughter, as if trying to fit in, also glares.
"Why don't you listen first?" comes from Awadamoto, the only car owner in the village and a taxi-driver in New Town, twenty minutes drive away.
Dahsang, Assak's closest friend, heaves an exaggerated sigh in Kapsak's direction and wags his head. Kapsak swallows while Assak, now gesticulating slowly, continues his lecture.
"Consequently, the Awakening of a man to the importance of some thought-provoking or life-defining experience is of significance in itself, for itself. Perhaps, quite as significant as the original happenstance. This is much in the same way as when a curious student seeks out the underlying reason why a teacher decides upon a particular experiment to illustrate a point.
"Some men come to this realization easily. Some labour over it. Some even deny it, though, curiously, being in denial has never destroyed evidence.
"Therefore, realization—the Awakening—is a deep-seated aspect of life which no circumstance can permanently put off."
Now really in his element, we learn that for Assak, realization has not come with the heart-shattering suddenness of bad news. Neither has it arrived with regal slowness like the kaleidoscopic rays of early morning sunlight. Nor has it materialized in the manner of a witch doctor's dramatic mumbo-jumbo prediction of the imminent return of a long-gone rainy season, which anyone could have made with no fuss. It has come crawling very much in the way of a tiny ant starting out at a man's foot yet bent on stinging only the fleshiest part of the buttocks.
What he does not tell us, which we learn nonetheless with a little snooping, is that with realization, or the "Awakening," as he prefers to call it, has come this new fad of his to go off on a tangent that no one, not even the dramatic witch doctor, can predict. Interestingly, curious solitary brainstorming sessions usually precede these rather unscientific extrapolations from uncertain sources.
Quite unlike them, the often-opinionated folks of Forneeso are no longer arguing over how, when and even where the whole matter is going to end. While they're all agreed that some conclusion will cap the issue, most scoffers and admirers have silently decided to wait and see to what strange creature Assak's Awakening will give birth. Yet some wait in well-articulated anticipation.
"It'll be nice to have tourists asking to be taken to meet Assak 'the philosopher of Forneeso'," says Awadamoto, his mind on the potential in fares. "More likely it'll be Assak 'the madman of Forneeso' we'll end up with," Kapsak cracks. "I assure you no tourists would want to meet him."
"Let's just wait and see!" Dahsang snaps.
So Forneeso is in waiting, sitting as dreary under the tropical sun as if it were in mourning. However, while they wait, the villagers of Forneeso still marvel at Assak's recent tendency to drop bits of unfamiliar sayings, right out of nowhere, into conversations or the suspicion-laden silence of a full room. Inexplicably, Assak keeps bringing up touching—and some not so touching—issues over everyday matters that come and go.
"I feel tears in my eyes even though I know I'm not crying," Assak points out to his wife one breezy evening. "I wonder why and eventually it dawns on me that even though I may not be aware of it, a part of me, I'm sure it's the soul, is crying. And it must be for some unjust happening."
His wife acquiesces with a silent nod and hastens to the kitchen. As far as she knows, weeping souls can neither cook dinner nor help in any practical way.
Dahsang, being the new philosopher's best friend, also has to put up with quite a bit.
"Infamous schemes to keep crooked politicians in the mainstream of events always stick out like sore thumbs," Assak says to his friend one clear night while they're watching the stars in the sky.
"What has that got to do with anything?" Dahsang wonders.
"I don't know. It just came into my head."
"Hmm. Assak, all this thinking, has it been able to tell you what tomorrow will bring?"
"No," Assak replies truthfully.
"See there? No one knows what tomorrow will bring so stop thinking so much."
"Empty promises that will sail with the dust."
"What? Is that what tomorrow will bring? Or are you talking about politicians again."
"Huh-huh-huh! No, it just occurred to me. I—well, come to think of it, politicians do make empty promises that sail with the dust. And tomorrow may bring just that."
"Assak! You've started again. What does 'sail with the dust' mean?"
"Just think about it and you'll see."
Dahsang thinks. And he does see. Much to his amazement. And, thenceforth, he too takes to thinking, much to his wife's chagrin.
"I don't like this at all," she complains bitterly. "That crazy friend of yours has got you thinking like him. Very soon you'll be saying nonsense like him too."
"Assak is not crazy," Dahsang declares. "He's just got the Awakening and I think I'm getting it too."
To ensure that he really gets it, despite his wife's scoffing, Dahsang recalls some of Assak's sayings at home. "If I could define with certainty my purpose here on earth, I believe that would empower me more than a landslide victory at a presidential election."
This only angers his wife the more. "Now I don't know who's crazier, you or Assak!"
"No one is crazy," Dahsang intones, imitating Assak's mild speech pattern. "It is in the nature of the mysteries that govern this world that one day the sledgehammer will bounce off the back of the ant and return to smash its wielder," Dahsang quotes happily, glad to have said it just the way Assak would have.
"You see what I'm saying? Now I truly don't know you anymore."
Dahsang shrugs and wonders what Assak would have said next. Most probably nothing.
Our survey of Forneeso in the days of Assak and his "Awakening" continues with a visual visit to his home on another day. For our friend of the unusual philosophical persuasion, this is a day of environmental sanitation. We bear witness as Assak begins to clear the small bushy area behind his house.
"Don't stand behind me," he says to his daughter as he begins work.
The thwack-thwack sound his machete makes as he cuts through the dried-out shrubs and grass excites the young girl so much that she walks around him in order to get a better view.
Unfortunately, she walks straight into Assak's return stroke. The heavy farm tool instantly splits her fragile skull and the young girl goes down without uttering a sound.
"Oh my God!" Assak screams as he turns to see blood gushing from his prone daughter's head.
"God help me! Please help me!" Assak tears off his shirt and tries to stop the bleeding.
Wrapping the shirt around the gash, Assak picks up his comatose daughter. Already moving, he thinks fast. Awadamoto would have left for New Town. Kapsak has a scooter. But besides Kapsak being Kapsak, it is said that he uses only heavily adulterated gasoline so the scooter runs for a hundred meters and then it has to be pushed for the next hundred.
Assak begins to run. He barrels flat out. It's the race of his life. His only chance is to get his child to the local dispensary as quickly as possible. Seconds later, he blows onto the narrow main village road and races on.
Like an ancient locomotive, he puffs through the village square at leg-breaking speed. Unintentionally, he knocks Dahsang's wife, who's returning from the market, out of the way and cuts off into the bush. The dispensary is four miles away. Staying on the road will take longer to reach it. Cutting through the bush should shave off a mile or so.
Dahsang's home. We find him totally relaxed in the comfort of an easy chair in his living room. His head is slightly bowed. It's a quiet scene. He's obviously in the middle of a mind-expanding meditation session. Presently his wife barges in breathing hard.
"Didn't I say it? Didn't I say it? That crazy Awakened friend of yours has joined a cult!"
Dahsang looks up at her. Slowly. Being interrupted in the middle of a mind-expanding meditation session—he has said this many times—is just another excuse for failing to grasp the fine points of the art.
"He has joined a cult!" his wife reiterates.
"My dear, would you please calm down? What is this talk about Assak joining a cult?" Dahsang is slightly worried. He knows his wife well enough and her excited state can only mean she has happened on some troubling discovery. But Assak can't be a cultist. Not Assak. Never.
"I saw him just now running with his daughter into the bush. I think he's going to offer her as a sacrifice."
"Don't be silly! Assak will never do such a thing!"
"Look, I saw the blood myself! It seemed as if he'd violated her too though I won't say so since I didn't see that. But he pushed me down and ran away with the girl. She may already be dead by now. And I know it's all because of his silly Awakening!"
Dahsang jumps to his feet. There are things a man should see for himself.
His lean frame surprisingly strong against the wind, Assak blows on. He jumps over shrubs, sways slightly to avoid a low tree branch and powers on, determined to save his daughter's life. Quickly, he fords a shallow stream and puffs up the muddy west bank, oblivious of the blood oozing from a cut on his right toe. He clutches his daughter's comatose body tightly as he tears through the bush with the fury of a prey-seeker bent on overtaking its prey.
If only time will wait, Assak tells himself as the thought crosses his mind that he might not make it to the dispensary quickly enough.
"Time must wait!" he suddenly screams. "Time must wait! Time must wait!" To make time wait, Assak reaches deep within him and finds the extra strength to increase his already amazing speed. Over an anthill he goes with a leap that would impress even an Olympic triple jumper. Uneven ground sends him plunging to the earth but an unseen force steadies him as he repeats his emotion-laden battle cry: "Time must wait!"
"Time must wait! Time must wait! Time must wait!" The words keep echoing over and over in the bush. Yet we are silent witnesses as time continues its destination-less journey, unwilling to halt a course set long before the days of Assak.
With Dahsang's wife re-enacting her knock-down experience in slow-motion to all-comers, it happens that a while before the young girl actually passes on, virtually all of Forneeso have heard that "Assak's daughter is dead," and that "he sacrificed her, you know, that Awakening thing of his."
Assak returns from the dispensary limping from the big cut on his toe. Drained and still in shock over the death of his daughter, we hear him barely manage to tell his wife and Dahsang what actually happened before delayed hysteria ceases him and turns him to a whimpering man.
Meanwhile, legging about the village, Kapsak carves a new career out of explaining precisely what sort of ritual Assak has performed with the late daughter.
"It is a devilish sacrifice for wealth and knowledge," he declares to one family near his home. Deciding that the news is worth dining out on, he walks some distance to a wealthy palmwine merchant's home, hoping to get some fresh wine in return for his insightful analysis.
"You'll see how rich Assak is going to become soon," Kapsak, this forerunner of the annoying TV/Radio news/event analyst, says between gulps of sweet, fresh palmwine. "It's in the blood, you know. They use the blood to perform the ritual, and then money will start pouring out of a hole in the floor. But I tell you the end result is always madness, you'll see."
Suddenly, while he is still holding forth in his new area of expertise, a mighty explosion rocks the village and forces everyone outside.
"I wonder what that blood-thirsty Assak is up to now," Kapsak says in a tipsy voice.
"What makes you so sure that had anything to do with Assak?" his host, who's always liked Assak, queries.
"I tell you I know these things! It's still part of their rituals!"
An over-excited boy comes running along and is besieged for news.
"It's Assak's doing, isn't it?" Kapsak growls, making us wish so fervently we aren't here only as observers and that we could hit him on the head just to shut him up.
"Let the boy talk!" his host snaps. "Come boy, tell us, what happened?"
"It's fire," the breathless boy says, "it went boom!"
"Assak's house, isn't it?"
"No," the boy begins to say then stops and stares at Kapsak.
"What is it, boy?" Kapsak says, his eyes swimming in alcoholic frenzy in their sockets. "Did you see the ghost of the dead child?"
"Come on, boy, where is the fire?"
"It's... it's at his house," the boy finally manages, pointing at Kapsak.
"Where?" Kapsak screams, his wine gourd dropping with a splash. "I'll kill Assak! I will! I swear I will!"
Since the whole village is now heading in the direction of Kapsak's house where a raging inferno is threatening to flatten everything, it would make sense for us to make our way there too.
"What a day of tragedies," an old toothless woman cries while struggling to keep up with a group of much younger women.
"They say it's all Assak's fault. The gods are angry. They're going to punish us all."
"How can that be? Assak isn't the one that kept gasoline at Kapsak's house."
"So it's gasoline?"
"You mean you didn't hear?"
"Aye, but I thought it happened in the bush."
"Yes, it's in the bush but it is still close to the house. They say Kapsak's first son wanted to burn the trash and he chose a spot too close to the gasoline jerry cans that his father hoards to sell on the blackmarket to stranded motorists."
"I hope he's alright."
"Who, Kapsak or the son?"
"I mean the son."
"That shows how little you know about gasoline."
"May the gods have mercy on us!"
"Will they? I thought you said just now they're angry and out to punish us all."
By the time he reaches his burning house, we find that Kapsak is in no state to kill an ant. Drunk and stupefied by grief, when he sees that the "awakened" Assak is at the head of the human water line fighting a lost battle to save his house, he merely crumbles into a crying heap.
As we leave and go our separate ways, we may ponder whether Forneeso, after its moments of stimulation, will return to its lacklustre ways or whether more excitement lies in the future of this one-car village.