It is a story of times long gone by. It is the story from ancient Egypt – long before the time of the pharaohs. Those were the times when man still worshiped the old gods. The new God came long after. One could say that man was still exploring and conceiving the idea of God. It is the story of souls becoming creatures – either of the light or darkness.
It is a story of a princess and a jeweler who lived in a city besides the quietly flowing Nile. It was already an old city by the time the Princess was born. The city was magnificent and had already seen a thousand armies camp around its walls.
It had grand old libraries, filled with millions of old books of wisdom and prophecies; where one could see old scholars and philosophers, bent over the words of past.
It had miles long bazaars, lined with spice and gem shops; where one could find anything, from the silks of Damascus to the shrunken heads from the Amazon.
It had majestic temples of gold, adorned with kind and ferocious faces of the old gods; where one could see withered old priests singing hymns and swinging their pots of steaming incense.
And it had taverns and houses of ill repute, teeming with prostitutes and opium dealers; where one could sell both the soul and piety; and where one could buy even oblivion and happiness.
The city hustled and bustled and grew old, burdened by the desires of its inhabitants. And the Nile flowed by, unconcerned and oblivious to the city’s charms and horrors.
The Princess lived in a palace of gold, guarded by grand towers and mighty slaves, with bodies carved out of black mahogany. She was young, about twenty and some years and breathtakingly beautiful. Tall and graceful, she had the most wonderful eyes. In fact her eyes were the only features of her, one could ever see. The rest was all covered under a long flowing robe of the finest of all silks. Only the mirror knew of her true physical beauty. It is possible of course that she was ugly. But as her physical beauty is not the subject of this story, we will safely assume that the Princess was beautiful.
As told by all those who had been lucky enough to meet the Princess, she had the most marvelous eyes. Her eyes shone with a hidden brilliance and high intellect. She had the power of curiosity and the determination and resolve to execute what she conceived.
Like all other people of the city, the Princess believed in one of the old gods and believed in the divinity of all holy scriptures. But the Princess’s beliefs did not prevent her from patronizing the sciences and the arts. She built new libraries and stocked them with volumes from all over the world. She established universities and academies and recruited teachers. She was admired and respected by all and awed and feared by a few. But overall, she was popular and ruled the city well.
The Jeweler on the other hand, was not so popular at all. In fact only a very few people knew of his existence. He had a small shop in one corner of the oldest bazaar. The shop not only had the finest of all jewels but was full of all sorts of curiosities. Anybody entering it could see an old man, sitting in a corner, smoking and reading a book. He was surrounded by books – old dusty volumes filled with ancient and exotic secrets; and also gadgets of brass and silver – gadgets too obscure to make any sense of. His clay pipe blew clouds of aromatic tobacco and golden tea boiled on a small stove. The fragrances of tea and tobacco made love in the air, while he read and kept on reading, occasionally looking up and smiling benignly at a wandering customer.
It is said that the greatest of all histories are written in the most ordinary of moments. The Princess and the Jeweler had never met each other, but one day their paths crossed.
The Princess was looking for a rare ruby from the great mountains in the East. She called the captains of all the great caravans passing through the city. She met all the travelers and vagabonds. She even sent expeditions to the four corners of the world and announced rewards for anyone who could bring her the said ruby, but she still couldn’t find it.
‘Yes?’ The Princess, who stood in the balcony watching the city below, turned.
A young girl slave stood in front of the Princess, looking down at the marble tiles.
‘Your majesty! People say that there is a jeweler in the grand bazaar. He collects all sorts of curiosities.’
‘So?’ The Princess looked questioningly at her.
‘He might have what you desire. Or he might know from where it can be procured.’ The girl humbly suggested.
‘Go tell Akhmed to ready my ride. I will go visit the Jeweler myself.’ The Princess excitedly rubbed her delicate hands covered with velvet gloves.
‘Your majesty! He is just an ordinary jeweler.’ The girl looked bewildered. ‘I’ll go bring him to the palace.’
‘Just do as told.’ The Princess looked at her sternly.
Unbeknownst to the young slave, it was not the first time that the Princess had heard of the Jeweler. She already knew about him, but in a very different context. The Jeweler was a writer too and he once wrote a book on the life and times of an ordinary prostitute. The book had greatly fascinated the Princess. She always wanted to meet the writer but had forgotten all about him amidst her busy routine.
When the Princess’s procession entered the grand bazaar, it caused a commotion everywhere. She rarely visited the city but once she did, nothing could escape her eagle eyes. With their great scimitars balanced on the shoulders, two rows of black slaves followed her camel. Wherever she went, people bowed and scuttled to the sides. From behind her veil, the Princess looked amusingly at each face and every wall. Her smiling and proud eyes, beneath the sharp Samurai swords of darkly-lined eyebrows, examined everything in great detail.
‘It is my City and I am its only custodian.’ She thought silently.
The Jeweler sat quietly reading a book in his shop when his reverie was broken by cries.
‘Make way! Make way for the Princess!’
He looked out and saw the people hurrying in the bazaar. He smiled at the excitement of ordinary people and then opened the book again, having no time for princes and princesses. His realm was of imagination and he was its only king.
Suddenly the commotion outside fell silent and a fragrant shadow entered the Jeweler’s shop. He looked up at the vision lighting up the dark confines of his small shop. A woman stood, all clad in black silk – only her eyes were visible. The Jeweler peered into her eyes and for a brief moment lost himself. The eyes shone with the light of hard cold brilliance. They were two brown pools of crystal-clear amber, unfathomably deep. He stared into the depths of those eyes and was sure that anybody could sink in them – drowned without any hope of recovery.
‘Get up you fool! Can’t you see you are in the presence of the Princess?’ The towering slave from Habsha straightened his scimitar and growled deeply.
The old Jeweler smiled kindly at the slave and got up slowly.
‘Welcome your majesty!’ He respectfully bowed to the Princess.
‘Are you the Jeweler who wrote that book?’ She smiled and asked him.
‘I have the humble honor of writing many books. Which is the one being referred to, by your exalted highness?’ The Jeweler asked her politely.
‘The one about the prostitute who became the favorite of gods.’
‘All prostitutes are favorites of the gods.’ The Jeweler smiled a little. ‘But yes I am afraid, I wrote that book. Did it offend your majesty?’
‘No it didn’t. It rather pleased me.’
‘I am grateful for your pleasure.’ The Jeweler bowed again. ‘How may I be of any service to your majesty?’
‘I am looking for a rare ruby.’ The Princess rubbed her gloved hands in anticipation. ‘It is said that when a virgin is sacrificed to the gods by the tribes living in the great mountains of the East, her blood turns into rubies.’
‘Ah!’ The Jeweler grunted with pleasure and opened a small safe in the wall behind a painting. ‘I believe I have what you desire, though I fear it is just a gift of nature. No blood of the virgins was involved in its making.’
The Jeweler took out a small and weather-beaten leather purse from the safe and carefully opened it. Within the purse, on a bed of black velvet, lay a ruby. If people mistook it for the blood of virgins, they weren’t wrong. It was a thing of unparalleled beauty and of the purest red – each of its facets gleaming and pulsating, as if with a hidden desire. Against the black velvet, the ruby seemed to throb warmly, with a hidden life of its own.
‘Is this what your majesty was looking for?’ The Jeweler presented the ruby for the Princess’s scrutiny.
‘Yes!’ She whispered and her beautiful deep brown eyes glimmered with pleasure. ‘What do I owe you?’
‘If it pleases your majesty, I will accept your pleasure as the payment.’ The Jeweler was smiling at her.
The Princess looked up, expecting craftiness in the eyes of the old man. Instead, she found only profound satisfaction and perhaps affection. It was not the satisfaction that caught her attention. Rather it was the shadow of affection, which seemed too familiar – like musk riding the shoulders of the evening breeze, across the dimensions of space and time.
‘Are you sure? My pleasure is all you want?’ She asked and the old Jeweler just bowed his head in confirmation.
‘I consider myself held in your debt forever.’
The Princess acknowledged the graciousness of the old man and turned to go. Then she suddenly stopped and turned back.
‘Have we ever met before?’
‘I am afraid……not in this lifetime at least.’ The Jeweler raised his eyes. ‘But yes we have met in another lifetime, too far away in the future.’
‘Do not mock my question.’ The Princess warned and the sharp Samurai blades furrowed her fair brow in anger. ‘How can I remember something from the future? How can something which yet lies in the future, has already happened?’
‘I dare not mock your majesty.’ The old man bowed his head humbly. ‘Time is but a river. Our souls drink from many places from this river, both simultaneously and consecutively. What happens in future has already occurred in the past. And what happened in the past is yet to happen in the future. It is not your majesty’s eyes but your soul that recognizes me.’
‘Do not try to confuse me old man; and do not invite my wrath.’ The Princess’s cheeks were flushed red. ‘I can be as terrible as I am kind.’
‘I do not doubt that.’ The old Jeweler seemed unaffected by the Princess’s tone. ‘But perhaps your majesty is not familiar with the river of time and the way it flows.’
‘Arrest this man this very instance and lock him up in the deepest dungeon.’ The Princess ordered her slaves. ‘Keep him locked up until he comes to his senses and tells me where I have seen him before.’
The slaves dragged the old man by his silver hair and locked him up. But he didn’t protest and kept on smiling. Each night the Princess visited him in the dungeons and asked him the same question. And each night the old Jeweler repeated his answer: ‘Your majesty is not familiar with the river of time and the way it flows.’
Then one night, the old man’s resolve crossed the Princess’s threshold of young patience.
‘This is the final warning for you.’ The Princess carried a candle and the light caught the flecks of gold dancing in her angry brown eyes. ‘You either tell me where we have met before or I will kill you in the morning.’
‘Your majesty is not familiar with the river of time and the way it flows.’ The old Jeweler repeated his answer.
‘Aren’t you afraid to die old man? There is no escape from these dungeons. The walls of this prison have absorbed the anguished cries of a million souls. You will die here and your bones will rot.’
‘Escape?’ The old man chuckled. ‘Oh I assure your majesty, if I wanted to escape, your dungeon could not keep me.’
With these words, the Jeweler got up from the floor. He approached the steel bars and gripped them with his gnarled hands. He closed his eyes and muttered something under his breath. He stepped forward and diffused through the bars. Then he smiled at the dumbfounded Princess and stepped back into the cell.
‘Who……who are you?’ The Princess almost dropped the candle in shock.
‘I am a shadow from your future and I am your memory from the past.’ The old Jeweler whispered. ‘Some souls are intertwined. They are bound to meet and then meet again across the thresholds of past, present and future.’
‘If you can escape, why didn’t you leave?’ The Princess looked at him with awe.
‘Oh! But I don’t want to leave.’ The old man smiled at her again in his familiar affectionate way. ‘You are a creature of light and I like you. I love the way your light flickers in the darkness of this world.’
‘Am I?’ The Princess asked dreamily. ‘Am I really a creature of light?’
‘Oh yes! You definitely are.’ The Jeweler nodded his silver head. ‘You are a butterfly dancing above the flowers, your wings sparkling with all the vibrant colors of the rainbow.’
‘Are you here to catch this butterfly?’ The Princess asked.
‘Not at all. If I catch the butterfly, the colors of rainbow will just become powdered residue on my old fingers.’ The Jeweler softly whispered. ‘A butterfly looks good only while dancing in the air. She is the goddess of flowers and a creature of light.’
The Princess opened her mouth to ask another question. But then she just turned away and left, unsteady on her quivering legs. The old man smilingly watched her move away, but didn’t try to stop her. He knew she would return.
Needless to mention, the Princess didn’t kill the Jeweler the next morning. Instead she returned the next night and brought along some spiced wine.
‘What is this creature of light you choose to call me?’ She asked him.
‘A soul can either be a creature of light or a creature of darkness.’ The old man scratched his silver beard. ‘You are a creature of light because your soul is pure, yet unburdened by sins. The creatures of darkness on the other hand, have their souls darkened by the ink of their sins.’
‘And what are you?’ The Princess asked. ‘Are you a creature of light too?’
‘Me? A creature of light?’ The old Jeweler gave a good throaty chuckle. ‘No I am not a creature of light. In fact I am too old to be categorized. I do not belong to either of the realms. Instead I tread willingly across the border between light and darkness.’
‘Are you sure I am a creature of light?’ The Princess’s eyes gleamed with vanity.
‘Oh yes!’ The old Jeweler nodded his head and sipped some of the spice wine. He swirled the wine around in his mouth and smacked his tongue with pleasure.
‘You are a creature of light Princess. But remember, there is one force which if misdirected, can change that.’
‘What force?’ The Princess poured him some more wine.
‘The force of love!’ The old man sipped the wine again. ‘If you keep on falling in love with yourself and do not love others, wisdom will never grace your horizons and your light will gradually transform into darkness. By the way, the reverse holds true for the creatures of darkness. If they do not fall in love with themselves but love all others, their wisdom grows and the darkness gradually recedes in the face of light.’
‘It’s true that I love myself.’ The Princess nodded her head.
‘No. You do not love yourself. You are in love with yourself.’ The old Jeweler looked at her. ‘There is a difference. We love our parents and siblings. We can love so many people but we fall in love with only one person.’
‘But I am in love with someone.’ The Princess protested. ‘I am in love with a Prince from the warring tribes of the North.’
‘How can you be in love with him when you are in love with yourself?’ The old man asked with a smile. ‘And what about the others? Do you love other people too?’
‘I end up all other relationships once they start becoming intimate. I end them to maintain the integrity of mutual respect.’ The Princess appeared flustered.
‘Oh yes! You are afraid of losing respect, of yourself and of all those whom you may love or like. But do remember Princess, by ending a relationship, respect may survive but understanding will never come.’
The old man raised his hand. ‘Human beings are not disposable commodities. The presence and nearness of each soul in your life, carries a specific meaning. Understanding comes through experiencing the heartbreak. It comes from seeing the other souls suffer; and it comes from handling, sharing and relieving their pain, wisely and maturely.’
‘I do not understand what you are saying old man. I prefer to live life on my own terms.’ The Princess got up. ‘Enjoy the spiced wine. A flask will be brought to you every day until you decide to leave.’
‘Understanding will come one day but it will come with age, my dear Princess.’ The old man whispered but the Princess acted as if she didn’t listen to what he said and hurriedly climbed up the stairs of the dungeon.
Days changed into weeks, weeks turned into months and months stretched into years. The old man willingly remained in the dungeons and the Princess never visited him again. Gradually the palace and its inhabitants forgot about him.
But with the passage of time, something changed deep inside the Princess. She no longer was in love with herself. Instead, she chose to love and understand others.
She sat in the loving company of friends and drew warmth and assurance from their drunken laughter.
She looked at orphans with love and learnt patience and kindness from their sad smiles.
She fed the poor with only love in her heart and learnt fortitude and courage from their tired lives.
And she accepted the intimacy of those who loved her and understood their suffering, anguish and pain.
She grew old and stopped being in love with herself. Instead she just loved herself and all others around her.