THE WOMAN IN THE PORCELAIN MASK

porcelain__by_lugubrious_drollery

     Once I was Ashastû, son of Darsha and the resident of the ancient city of Nishapur. Once I was the bird, imprisoned by a gilded cage. I was the follower of Mazdayasna and the worshipper of Ahura Mazda.

      Like a butterfly, which once is a caterpillar, I was all that but no more. I have become the bearer of the most ancient of all legacies – the legacy of the forgotten wisdom. This is the story of my transformation and my transition, from a caterpillar to a butterfly; and from the path of dark ignorance to the path of bright wisdom.

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     My family had been serving the grand temple of Nishapur since the times of the great Zarathustra. My father was amongst the most respected leaders of the Council of Mobeds; and was the Chief Priest of the Temple of Fire and also the Custodian of the Towers of Silence.

      My father was kind and affectionate and wanted me to take his place, once it was his time to return to the lap of Ahura Mazda. But I was a free spirit – an eagle living under the shades of the great mountains. An eagle, who was waiting for his chance to ride the mighty shoulders of wind and make his home atop the summits of the snowy peaks.

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​            Nishapur was not an ordinary city. This Persian city was the capital of the Province Khorasan and attracted intellectuals and artisans from as far as Jerusalem and Taxila. The city was full of gold and riches, thanks to its wealth of the never-ending turquoise mines.

      It was a tough and a resilient city. It survived the raids of the rebels fighting the Sasanids and the Samanids; it survived the onslaught of the Tahirid and the Seljuq forces; and it survived the devastation imposed by the Mongols. In fact the city’s survival against the Mongols was nothing short of a miracle.

      The devils from the Khanate in Mongolia, slaughtered the entire population of the city within days. A few citizens including my family saved their lives by hiding in caves, masked by the slopes of the Binalud Mountains. But something deep within the city’s carcass kept breathing; and after the fall of Khwarezmia at the hands of the Mongols, Nishapur thrived under the Shiites. Along with the great cities of Balkh, Merv and Herat, it evolved into an intellectual, commercial and cultural gem.

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​            Nishapur was a colourful city with a life of its own. But, with all its charms and knowledge and with all its riches and women, the city was unable to keep me chained to the feet of my father. I was waiting for my chance to fly away and my father knew it.

‘Ashastû! My son! You are going to get lost in the world out there.’ He used to say, gracefully attired in his flowing white robes.

‘Yes father!’ I used to bow my head with a tiny and rebellious smile dancing around the corners of my lips.

‘Stay here with me and one day the spirits of our ancestors will bring peace to you.’

‘But the spirits live beyond the frontiers of space and time. Won’t they be able to bring peace to me wherever I am in this whole wide world?’ I used to tease him, feeling confident in the warmth of his paternal affection.

‘Do not exploit the love of an old man, Ashastû. I love you my son and would like you to stay here with me.’ His moist eyes used to plead.

‘If you truly love me father….’ I used to beg in return, ‘…..you would let me go wherever I want.’

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​            Then one day, a great caravan from Kashghar crawled like a great serpent through the grand doors within the city’s walls. To the city of Nishapur and its countless dwellers, the caravan was nothing out of ordinary. But for me, the caravan was the wind, the eagle was seeking. Once it left Nishapur after a few days, I was riding one of the camels, concealed by the grey and brown of an old tattered robe.

​            Once I left Nishhapur, I never looked back. It was my dream to see the world stretching beyond the horizon and the mighty mountains. That world I saw with my eyes and felt it with my hearts. With each new journey, came a new adventure.

         For survival and needs, I carried a copy of the Avesta, the collection of Zoroastrians sacred texts. The ancient book, the obscure prophecies hidden within its disintegrating pages and my understanding of the verses, were all I had to earn my livelihood. I was willing to trade my religion for my survival.

​            The caravan followed the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and entered Azerbaijan. I smelt the salt-laden air kissed by the snow and peered into the grey eyes of the wild mountain women. I found the majesty of the icy peaks reflected in those eyes. The freedom of my soul fell in love with the freedom of those grey eyes. But I had to move on and I moved on, leaving a piece of my heart buried in the white snow.

​            The caravan moved through Armenia and then Georgia and reached the great city of Smyrna in Turkey. The captivating architecture and the minarets with their high spires lost within the white billowing clouds, stimulated my curiosity. The music of the lyre and the smells of the spices intoxicated my soul and incited my sensuality. I wanted to study the graceful curves of each marble dome and feel the textures of each sun-dried brick. But I had to move on and I moved on, leaving a piece of my soul tied to the legs of the pigeons of Smyrna.

​            The caravan moved through Babylon and Mesopotamia and then back into Persia. It crawled along the Persian Gulf and re-entered Khorasan. The caravan did not stop either at Kandahar or Ghazni except for a day or two; and kept moving until it reached the feet of the great Buddhas at Bamiyan.

​            Bamiyan awed me. The Buddhas, managing to look humble in even their grandeur captivated my imagination. There they were, carved into the side of a great mountain, looking down on the wandering Hazara tribes. I used to sit on a rock facing the statues and think of the times of the noble man who abandoned the rich comforts of his palace in search of peace and wisdom.

       I loved Bamiyan so much that when the caravan left, I stayed behind. But it was not my interest or curiosity in the Buddhas which made me stay in Bamiyan. Rather it was my dark fate, which perched upon a lonely ledge of the naked mountains; and stalked its ignorant prey. Then one day it dived down from the ledge. It hid her dark ugliness behind the sweet and lovely face of Zahran and introduced me to the yet alien feeling of love.

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      That summer morning, I was sitting at my usual spot and was lost in a reverie. The day was bright and peaceful with a few soft clouds floating on the clear blue sky.

‘Who are you and why do you sit here everyday?’ The gleaming steel of a delicate but firm voice sliced the silence neatly.

       I slowly turned my neck and looked at my nemesis. There she was, riding the most beautiful horse I had ever seen. It was tall and had gleaming black satin skin stretched over wonderfully formed muscles. Its long mane was knit into braids, each tied with a small silver bell at the end; and the leather saddle and straps looked as soft as velvet and were dyed a dark hue of purple.

         My eyes remained fixed at the delicately carved silver spurs attached to the black leather saddles; and climbed up slowly, tracing the firm contours of muscled and well-toned shins and thighs. The rider had an excellent taste in clothes and her dark velvet apparel spoke of her high status.

          I finally looked up to the face where a pair of emerald-hued eyes were staring at me with curiosity from underneath two bushy eyebrows, stretched like scimitars. Nothing was else was visible as a purple silk scarf covered the face.

‘I am Ashastû of Nishapur.’ I answered while getting up.

‘And who might be you my lady?’

‘I am Zahran.’ She briefly answered and kept staring at me.

‘Zahran who? Queen of the Dark Night or Guardian of the Golden Sunlight?’ I asked with a smile.

‘Zahran, daughter of Katib Ahang, the Chief of all Hazara tribes.’ She answered haughtily and then turned her horse and galloped away.

         I kept on standing there for ages, my senses numbed by the fragrance diffusing the clear mountain air all around me. It was the fragrance of the night-scented jasmine and it seeped deep into my heart.

          Zahran, who she might had been and what she might had been, became my destiny in a few fleeting moments. I forgot that I was a traveller. I forgot that I was away from my home and in a foreign land with strange customs and traditions. All instincts of safety and survival left me and were replaced by the vision of two emerald eyes, peering at me from behind a silk scarf.

        I had heard of her father, Katib Ahang – the cruel and despotic tribal chief of all Hazaras. Whoever spoke of him, spoke with a fear-inspired deference. I knew where he lived – a navy blue pavilion, the colour of night sky, on which a silver flag waved along the currents of the crisp mountain air.

         From that day onwards, I sat on the same spot every day and at all hours, waiting for Zahran to return. I forgot all about the grand Buddhas and I stopped revelling in the sad majesty of the lofty mountains. Zahran became the centre of my universe. She became the fire which I awaited like a moth. I breathed in her name and breathed it out. I was a man struck by the thunderbolt of love. I was a doomed man.

           Days changed into nights and nights transformed back into days. The sun and the moon followed each other from horizon to horizon. Once, while I was sitting at my usual spot, something cold and wet fell on my head. I looked up. Snow had started falling. Winter had come to Bamiyan and with it came the freezing wind, chilling my bones. Zahran didn’t come but I kept on waiting for her.

           Then one day the gods smiled down at me. It was another cold morning. There was a harsh wind blowing from the North. But I was oblivious to all. I was sitting cross legged, facing the Buddhas with my eyes closed and vision filled with the beauty of emerald eyes, when suddenly I heard the sound of hooves thudding upon the soft arm-deep snow.

           The sound of hooves was nothing out of ordinary but I thought I could hear the tinkling of silver bells; and that was what made my heart leap with joy. I didn’t get up and turn around. Ashastû of Nishapur had patience.

‘Who are you and why do you sit here everyday?’ Her voice still sounded the same – gleaming steel slicing the thick blanket of silence.

‘I am Zahran’s slave and I wait here everyday for her.’

           My heart had stopped beating in the anticipation of a response. But there was only silence. Finally I decided to turn around. There on her tall horse, sat my beloved, clad in an ebony-coloured gown. Her emerald eyes were staring at me and through me, their green depths betraying nothing of what was going on in her mind.

‘I find you interesting, Ashastû of Nishapur.’ Zahran decided to speak.

‘Then I am the luckiest man on earth. Let death come and I will willingly embrace it for I have found all that I ever desired and all that I ever will desire.’ I approached the horse, placed my hand lightly on the reins and bowed my head.

‘One never finds all he desires. Don’t be absurd.’ Her eyes smiled at me.

‘One does if he learns contentment.’ I locked her gaze with mine.

‘So, are you content, Ashastû?’

‘Yes I am……now.’

She got down from the horse and we sat together on the boulder.

‘What do you desire most in the world?’ She asked, after a few moments of fragrant silence.

‘Interestingly, I thought I desired freedom the most. But….’ I deliberately left my sentence hanging in the cold mountain air.

‘But?’ She asked softly.

‘But that was before I met you Zahran. Now I desire you the most.’ I picked up some courage and delicately touched her hand.

She laughed at my answer and her laughter was the sound of silver bells riding the early morning air.

‘Ahh! Desire….the most temporary and fragile of all human feelings.’ She subtly pressed my hand.

‘One moment, the desire overpowers us and intoxicates us with its heady perfume; and the next, it dissolves into nothingness, making way for the next desire. But if fulfilled, it becomes the stink of regret.’

‘My desire for you is nothing like that. It is here to stay in my heart – forever.’

‘Forever?’ She laughed again. ‘Forever is a word that suits only the creator. We humans just live in the moments and can only dream for a forever.’

            We sat together for some time and then seeing a few horses leave her father’s camp, she hurriedly left. But that was not our last meeting. Instead it was the first of many such meetings. Each time we met, I expressed my love and each time she brushed aside my submissions with laughter. But as steadily falling drops of water engrave and carve a stone, slowly and gradually, Zahran’s heart melted.

          Seasons changed – winter gave way to spring and summer and autumn heralded the advent of another reign of harsh coldness. But our young hearts, warmed by love and passion, were oblivious of the cold winds raging outside.

          Then one day, Zahran did not come. I waited and kept on waiting. First for a day, then for a few days and then for weeks. When a whole month passed and she didn’t come, I knew something was amiss. Without reflecting on the consequences, one evening I decided to go check.

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        The pavilion of Katib Ahang was not very far from where I lived. I approached it stealthily. It was dark in the valley but brighter than daylight around the pavilion. A thousand torches burned brightly, illuminating the lower expanse of the grand canvas structure.

         The place was full of menacing looking sentries, some on foot, while the others rode tall horses. My heart was throbbing in my ears and I could smell the stink of my raw fear. But still, the memory of a fragrance – Zahran’s fragrance, kept me steadfast.

‘Who goes there?’

‘Who moves like a thief amidst the shadows?’

‘Halt! Or you will be slain like a filthy pig.’

Suddenly, frantic and threatening cries halted my feet. My foolish presence had been detected.

          In a few moments, I was caught by the sentries and my hands and feet were bound tightly. They threw me into a dark dungeon. A few nights passed and no one interrogated me. The guards were silent as trees and my desperate queries were responded to by cold eyes.

           Then one morning, the dungeon gates were opened, I was bound again and dragged to the Chief’s pavilion.

           The pavilion indeed looked grander from the inside. The canvas was covered by maroon velvet embroidered with gold, while the high steel and bamboo pillars were decked with golden fixtures. The floor was strewn with Afghani and Persian carpets, so luxuriously soft that I found my toes digging for hold at each step. Towards the farther end of the pavilion, in front of a black silk curtain, sat the Chief.

           Katib Ahang looked young for his age. His hair were still black and scattered on his wide shoulders. Beneath a wide forehead, two dark eyes glared at me, with not malice but curiosity. If I was not wrong, there was even a hint of a smile on his thin lips. But that was all deception. He was rumoured to be wise yet cruel and fair to the point of strict rigidity.

          Katib flicked his fingers towards me and I stepped forward. I could hear subdued snickering all around me. A stranger was definitely not welcome amongst that strange company. I was surprised to see women sitting amongst the men, not as subjects or objects, but as equals. I was aware that Hazara women formed part of the council of elders but I didn’t know that they constituted the court so openly.

‘Who are you and why are you here in Bamiyan?’ Katib Ahang inquired softly.

‘O’ mighty and noble chief of all Hazara tribes, I am Ashastû from Nishapur.’ I submitted in the humblest tone I could muster.

‘Well that answers my first question. What about the second question?’ Katib’s voice rang with impatience.

‘I came to Bamiyan by chance. I stayed in Bamiyan by choice. And I remained in Bamiyan by a stroke of fate.’ I bent my head.

‘Nothing happens by chance for every occurrence has a reason. Choice is rational but fate is only what we make out of our circumstances.’ The Chief chewed on each word of his.

             For a few moments nobody spoke. Even the whispers and snickering had died down. All was silent in the court of Katib Ahang; while the Chief‘s steely gaze scrutinised me from head to toe and he scratched his short pointed beard.

‘What do you do for a living, Ashastû of Nishapur?’

‘I am a follower of Zarathustra and a believer in Ahura Mazda. I am a religious scholar and a seeker of eternal truth. I am a traveler and a lover of freedom.’ I raised my head, stared back into Katib’s eyes and answered with confidence.

‘Hmmm!’ He scratched his beard again. ‘What were you doing near my pavilion the night you were caught? There is neither any eternal truth nor freedom to be found here.’

I couldn’t find any words to answer that question so I stood in silence.

‘No answer eh?’ Katib’s mocking voice resounded around the pavilion. ‘Perhaps you are not a religious scholar and a seeker of truth, but only a common thief.’

‘I am no thief O’ mighty Chief.’ I protested. ‘But I am afraid of telling the truth.’

‘Truth is the only force that will set you free, Ashastû of Nishapur. Speak and I will respect your words if I find them free of the poison of deception. But if I find even a hint of cleverness and lies, I will have you quartered by four strong horses.’

                 For a few moments we both kept staring at each other. I thought of many possible lies. Perhaps I could tell him that I had lost my way. That was believable and logical. Or I could tell him that I wanted to witness the grandeur of his pavilion first hand so that I could go back and tell my countrymen of his magnificence and might. That could have flattered him surely. But then reason abandoned me and I decided to tell the truth.

‘I came here to search for Zahran, your daughter.’ My answer was a trigger and a spark to the fuse of a cannon.

                After a few moments of silence, cacophony broke out and there was even the sound of a few swords and scimitars being unsheathed. But I refused to look around and kept on staring at the Chief. The colour of his face changed to red for a moment. He almost got up from his throne and started to speak but then controlled himself and sat back.

‘Silence!’ Katib snarled and the chaos around us died down abruptly. ‘And why were you searching for my daughter?’

‘Because I love her and worry about her absence. I feared that some sickness or malady had overcome her. But as I had no means of inquiring about her wellbeing, I decided to come check myself.’ I was growing fearless by the moment. Now that the truth was out in the open, I wasn’t afraid of death anymore.

‘Are you crazy or mad? Don’t you fear for your life young man?’ Katib inquired while impatiently rubbing his hands.

‘He is neither crazy nor mad.’ Zahran’s voice rang out from behind the black curtain. ‘He speaks the truth Father. He loves me and I love him.’

                Katib was startled by Zahran’s answer. He looked at the curtain and then at me and then back at the curtain again. He looked unbelievingly at his council of advisers and ministers, all of whom looked equally startled and shocked. It was a strange day in the court of Katib Ahang. He gave me a final look of disbelief and then held his hairy head in his hands and shut his eyes.

‘Do you belong to an illustrious family….perhaps a line of kings?’ The Chief raised his head and asked me. He looked old. Truth has that impact. It ages people.

‘No, I do not belong to a line of kings O’ mighty Chief of Hazaras. But my family is noble and I can trace my lineage back to the times of the great Zarathustra. My father is the Chief Priest of the Temple of Fire and the Custodian of the Towers of Silence in Nishapur. He is the Chief of the Council of Mobeds and is respected by the followers of all religions alike.’ I clasped my hands and explained with respect.

‘He is an infidel.’

‘He is the worshipper of fire.’

‘He dares to dishonour the Hazaras and our noble Chief.’

‘He should be killed.’

Chaos broke out in the court again.

‘Enough!’ Katib raised his hand and silence fell on the audience. ‘It is true that we are the people of one true faith. But it doesnt mean that we do not honour truth and the decisions of our women. Hazaras are noble not because of their lineage or race. We are noble because we honour truth and we honour our women. And one doesnt honour women by taking away their right of choice; one honours women by respecting their decisions.’

I breathed a sigh of relief and gave myself a pat for sticking to my instinct.

‘But….!’ Katib spoke again. ‘Zahran is no ordinary woman. She is the Princess of all Hazaras. For the honour of all Hazaras, she has a right of exercising her choice only if her choice proves his merit.’

‘I am ready for any test. I am even ready to give my life to prove my love for Zahran.’ I bowed my head.

‘I agree too. I have an absolute confidence in my choice.’ Zahran spoke from behind the curtain.

‘You are a seeker of truth you say?’ Katib looked at me sternly.

‘That I am O’ mighty Chief.’ I was at my humblest.

‘Then give me answer to these three questions and Zahran will be free to marry you.

What is God?

What is religion?

What are prayers?’

I heard the questions and processed them with unease. I looked up and saw that Katib was smiling.

‘But all these….all these are absolute questions and only absolute truths can answer these questions. Nobody can find absolute truths.’ I protested.

‘Even absolute questions can be answered satisfactorily provided the answers are founded on reason and logic.’ The Chief waved his hand.

I nodded my head in agreement and that was that. The deal was struck.

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             The next morning, Zahran along with a few riders from her father’s guard bade me farewell at the borders of Bamiyan. I looked at her face and instead of tears, there was confidence lighting up her eyes. She knew and she believed in my capabilities. I had to prove myself worthy of her belief and confidence. With a heavy heart, I waved at her one final time and started climbing the mountain path.

           I had no where particular to go. I didn’t know where the answers could be found. But trusting some instinct deep inside my heart, I decided to travel towards the North. My path was strewn with difficulties.

           I crossed the lands of the wily Turks. They looked at my tattered clothes and mistook me for a Sufi. Nobody asked my identity or religion. I passed through them unharmed.

           I came across the cruel and bloodthirsty Uzbeks. Their marauding bands caught me and then released me, unable to determine my nationality. I passed through them unharmed.

           I passed through the tribes of the Kazakhs. One look at me and the robbers knew I did not carry any valuables or money. They even took pity on me and I passed through them unharmed.

             It was like some force of nature was guiding my path and protecting me against all harms. The swords halted in mid air while plunging down on my neck; and daggers seeking my blood, withdrew at the last moment. When I was thirsty, I found sweet mountain springs; and when I was hungry, I found either game or kind villagers.

            Then one day, while I was getting tired of following the endless curves of a mountain river, I reached the feet of a mighty mountain range. The stones and rocks were all shades of black and white and grey. About a few hundred feet up on the slope, there was a building made of blackened and aged wood and stone. It was two stories high and smoke rose out of its chimneys. I had reached a caravan sarai.

            After many negotiations and pleas on my part, the owner of the sarai agreed to let me spend a few nights there; in return for my agreement to entertain the guests each night. It was a strange place. I could see a hundred or so travellers, each with a different nationality and features. This by itself was not strange. Caravan sarais are supposed to be melting pots of many cultures and nationalities. But what I found strange was that none of the guests was a tradesman.

            There was a thin naked sadhu from Benares in India; his naked body glistening at all times with either the fat of dead animals or soiled with ash. I was fascinated by the markings on his forehead and his knotted hair and yoga asanas.

            There was a young woman with flaming red hair; her green eyes betraying her Nasrani ancestors. The owner of the sarai called her a witch; an accusation which she neither denied nor accepted. I was entranced by the fluid way in which her body moved, while she danced to the strange beat of some invisible music.

            There was a Tibetan Buddhist monk; his head as bald as an egg and his face filled with lines deep with age and experience. I marvelled at the sea of calmness reflected in his expressionless eyes and his slow deliberate way of doing each routine task as it was some mystic ritual.

            And then there was a shaman from some unknown lands; his long hair adorned by the most marvellous looking feathers of exotic birds. I was captivated by his deep guttural incantations and his throat singing, which resonated with something deep inside me.

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             Then one night, while I was sitting besides the fire burning in the middle of the sarai’s courtyard, huddled in my tattered blanket and unable to sleep, I felt someone staring at me. I looked around. Everyone was either busy or asleep. No one was interested in me. But the feeling of being stared at persisted strongly.

I closed my eyes and the wise words of my far away father, echoed in my ears.

‘When there is a sensory perception but you cannot find its origin, close your eyes and regulate your breathing. Breathe in and breathe out. Cancel out the noise of the world around you. Slowly and gradually, the origin will reveal itself to you.’

              I regulated my breathing. Then breaths in and ten out, each of equal duration. When the world fell silent around me, I opened my eyes. I again searched the shadow and finally sensed a movement. Slowly, the shadows transformed into a definable physical shape and the Shaman stepped out of the darkness and approached me.

              He wasn’t walking, he was dancing. He was taking slow deliberate steps – two forward, one back, two forward, one sideways and then again two steps forward. Nobody around us was playing any instrument but I thought I could hear the weeping of the lyre and the beat of unseen drums. I looked at him, entranced by his dancing to the rhythm of the unheard music.

             The Shaman came closer and started dancing around me. He completed one circle around me and then another in the opposite direction. But all that time, his half-closed eyes remained fixed at me. Then suddenly he stopped and raised his hand in the hair. My eyes followed the direction his index finger was pointing in.

              There, in a window on the top floor of the sarai, stood a woman with the palest and most featureless face I had ever seen. Her long hair fanned her shoulders. She was looking at me intently. Then she raised a hand and motioned at me to join her.

             I had never seen that woman at the sarai before that moment. She was probably a new guest. I wanted to ask the Shaman about her, but he had vanished – dissolved like smoke in the night air. I looked around and searched the shadows. He was nowhere to be found.

            Scratching my head in confusion, I got up, adjusted the blanket around my shoulders and entered the building. The owner was sitting behind a stone counter, busy doing some calculations in the weak lamp light. Sensing my presence he looked up and stared at me questioningly.

‘I have been summoned.’ I offered confusedly.

‘By whom?’ He sounded almost bored.

‘By a woman.’

‘There is no woman in the sarai. The witch was the only woman and she left this morning for the Lake of Grey Shadows.’ He chuckled softly.

‘I saw an old woman standing in a window.’ I insisted.

‘Well! We see what we want to see and not what is there to see. Go on then. Go see what the woman wants.’ He waved his hand at me disinterestedly and bent his head to his figures again.

            I grabbed a burning torch from a wall and started climbing the dark stairs. The top floor was all dark and quiet. All the doors were closed and looked the same except one. While all others were made of dark wood, this particular door was made of some strange metal which glowed in the dark. Rather, while the door itself provided a dark background, certain carvings on it pulsated with a strange glow.

              I looked at the carvings closely. They looked vaguely familiar. I moved back a little and then suddenly I understood. Those were not carvings – those combined to form the lines of a symbol. It was the figure of a bearded and crowned man with spread wings.

            The symbol was not alien to me. It represented Faravahar, a significant symbol of my religion, which represented many different things like sins, virtues, loyalty and faith. But above all it represented truth.

         Taking a deep breath, I knocked softly. The moment my knuckles touched the door, the glowing lines of the symbol rearranged themselves into figures. Those were all awful figures. There were souls writhing in agony and tortured spirits begging for mercy. For a moment I was startled, but then I comprehended what was meant by it.

          It was the door to the truth but truth is the most torturous of all possessions. It comes with a heavy price – the price that has to be paid in coins of anguish and misery. I asked myself if I was really ready to pay that price. Something inside me was convinced that whatever I sought, was to be found beyond that door. I thought of the sweet face of Zahran and her magical emerald eyes. I took another deep breath and knocked again. The glowing lines extinguished abruptly like a flame killed by two fingers and the door went dark. I waited for a moment and then knocked for the third time.

‘Enter!’ A quavering voice commanded from beyond that door and the door opened by itself.

            From the threshold, all looked dark inside, but the moment I closed the creaking door behind me, the room lighted up.

           The small room not unlike others in the Sarai, but far more decorated and rich with hanging tapestries. The walls were covered by dark heavy folds of bluish black velvet carrying ornate drawings and writings in gleaming silver. There was a wolf’s skin, complete with the snarling jaw and sparkling beady eyes, lying in the middle of the floor. There was a bright warm fire lit in the hearth and someone was sitting facing the fire.

            It was a small huddled figure – most probably the old woman who beckoned at me from the window. She was wearing a deep purple-colored silk gown, which was fading fast with age. But even within the folds of faded silk, intricately woven and embroidered dragons and other mythical beasts were visible, surrounded by some ancient runes.

‘Come sit besides me.’ The woman patted the small wooden stool at her side without turning back and looking at me.

‘Who are you?’ I sat down and tried to look at her face. But it was hidden by the fall of the silk gown.

‘I am the weeping wind in the willows,

which sighs and passes into silence’

Her sing song voice rose like a lament.

‘I am the weeping wind in the willows,

which sighs and passes into silence

I am the song of the grasshoppers,

which comes after the rains

I am the bright sun of joyous life,

which seems to shine eternally

And I am the pale moon of death,

which comes after the sun has set

I am what was and what is;

and what will be and what could have been

I am the riddle and I am the answer,

I am the woman in the porcelain mask.’

            With the last words she looked at me and I was startled. There was no face. Under the crown of magnificent silver hair, there was an expressionless and delicate white mask of porcelain, covering all her features. She was old – that was what I was sure of. But how old? I had no means to assess her age.

‘I haven’t understood any of what you have said.’ I humbly confessed my failure to comprehend what she meant.

‘You will understand.’ Her voice told me she was smiling underneath that mask. ‘You will understand all at the right time. Not before that, not after that. Only at the right moment.’

‘But who are you?’ I asked respectfully.

‘I was once a princess of the Song Dynasty. When the mongols attacked China, I was a prized catch. Kublai Khan took one look at me and his heart surrendered to me forever. I became one of his many beloved wives. With time I learnt to overcome my hatred for the Mongols – the killers of my noble family.’

              She fell silent and started prodding the dying flames. The sparks hiding beneath the ash resurfaced with a fury and the room was warm again.

‘Alas! Life is a series of sorrows separated by a few small joys. My joys came to an end too. I was travelling with a caravan to join my husband on one of his hunting expeditions. On the way I was kidnapped by the Hashisheen.’

‘Hashisheen?’ I asked. The term was strange to me.

‘Yes Hashisheen – the crazy followers of the Old Man under the Mountain. They were a fearsome lot. The Old Man Hassan bin Sabah and his successors had created a force of chaos. Their’s was the power of death and the instruments of death were a band of young man, all blinded by visions of heaven and hell.’ She answered without looking at me and then suddenly shivered as though the memory of some dark place was still haunting her nightmares.

‘Visions of heaven and hell? How did the Old Man manage that?’ I was surprised.

‘Hasheesh is a strange drug. It dulls the senses and makes you see visions in the smoke. Besides, the heaven and hell were real. I was myself one of the houris of that heaven. One look at our naked bodies and the boys were ready to kill just to have another look.’

‘Mookam karoti vaachaalam
Pangum langhayatey girim
Yatkripaa tamaham vandey
Paramaananda Maadhavam’

             Suddenly a wailing chant from the courtyard disturbed our conversation. It was the Shaman. The old woman got up and went to the window. She stood watching for some time and then raised her right hand and said sternly:

‘Be quiet you fool. Your job is done. Go lay down in peace.’

              With these commanding words, the Shaman stopped chanting and silence ruled the night air once again. She turned back and walked back to her place by the fire.

‘Enough about me….’ She said staring at me. ‘Now ask the questions you are seeking the answers to.’

‘Questions?’ I was startled. ‘But how do you………’

‘Don’t be a fool. Ask the questions before the night turns into day.’ She raised her hand and silenced my query.

‘The first question………’ I scratched my chin. ‘What is God?’

‘Are you familiar with Greek history?’ She asked.

‘Yes…somewhat.’ I couldn’t grasp the tangent our conversation was following.

‘Archimedes was a famous Greek philosopher and scientist. Once when asked to launch the naval fleet, he asked the King of Syracuse to pull a string lightly. When the King pulled that string, a great system of cleverly designed pulleys and levers moved and the whole fleet was launched in one go.

What can you not do…O’ great and wise Archimedes? The King asked in awe.

Everything can be done. Archimedes smiled. Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.

The old woman fell silent and I looked at her expectantly.

‘Well….so?’ I asked impatiently.

‘So……Ashastû of Nishapur..’ She was smiling again. I could sense it.

‘God is the place where we have to stand in order to move the world. God is the constant in all equations, which has to be incorporated in order to understand the relationship between the variables. God is not biologically significant. He is philosophically relevant and rather a compulsion.’

‘So the belief in God is must in order to understand the world?’ I asked.

‘Yes, God is the path you walk on….the path to truth.’

‘The second question….?’ I looked at her hesitatingly and waited for her permission.

‘Yes please.’ She patted my knee with her bony hand reassuringly.

‘What is religion?’ I asked.

            For a while the old woman didn’t speak. She got up and stood in the window. Lightening was illuminating the distant peaks and the voice of far away thunder was a muffled roar. Then she turned towards me and spread her arms wide. She looked like a priestess of the heathens, her silver hair spread across the silk-clad shoulders and the white porcelain mask illuminated by the light of the flames.

‘Listen Ashastû of Nishapur, all religions are the same. I was brought up a Buddhist and was then taught Taoism too. I lived amongst the Mongols and learnt of their great religion of Shamanism; and I also witnessed the conversion of Kublai Khan to Islam. Then when I was abducted by the Hashisheens, I learnt of many other religious doctrines and styles. There were Christians and Jews and even Hindus amongst us.’

‘But…’ I protested, ‘Zoroastrianism is the one true religion.’

The woman laughed and her brittle laughter shattered the silence of the peaceful mountain night.

‘Tell me Ashastû.’ Seeing my obvious discomfort, she took pity on me. ‘Are you familiar with the story of the Angra Mainyu from your religion?’

‘Yes!’ I excitedly answered. ‘The architect of destruction, the King of all demons and noxious creatures and the opposite of Ahura Mazda.’

‘And is your Angra Mainyu any different from the Christian concept of the devil or the Islamic concept of Shaitan?’ The woman was calm, while I was in a turmoil. ‘Or is your Ahura Mazda any different from the Christian God and the Islamic Allah?’

‘All religions are the same. They talk about similar concepts: judgement after death; free will; and heaven and hell. Man needs to believe in a higher power and higher system of judgement for psychological security. Man wants to commit sins with a belief in forgiveness; and wants to ward off the consequences of his actions.’

The woman fell silent and I was trying to somehow support my badly shaken beliefs.

‘I am ready to answer the third question.’ The woman had very little patience for my uncomfortable silence.’
‘The third question….what are prayers?’ I asked.

‘Have you ever witnessed a war?’ The woman asked me and I shook my head in negative.

‘Never.’

‘There are always two or more sides to a war. The sides may belong to different religions or the same religion. They may pray to different gods or the same god. But they all pray. Then why is it so that only one side wins?’

‘Because…..!’ I smiled. I was confident of my answer. ‘Because the side which is favoured by the God wins.’

‘Fine!’ She bent her head in quiet acknowledgement. ‘But what about your own prayers? Have they all been answered?’

‘No.’ I answered after giving the matter a careful thought. ‘In fact, very few of my prayers have been answered.’

‘And what about the prayers of your fellow human beings?’ She persisted.

‘Very few prayers are answered. Most are set aside by the God.’ I answered with a smile.

‘If you were asked to logically analyse the matter of prayers; basing upon your observation and the available statistical evidence, what would be your answer? Prayers are answered or not?’

‘My answer would be…’ I thought of the appropriate words. ‘Prayers are not answered.’

‘And yet you human beings continue to pray.’ The woman got up. ‘There is your answer. Prayers are for psychological security only. God doesnt interfere with the system He has created.’

             A wolf howled at the moon somewhere in the valleys. I looked outside the window. The East was turning pale. Morning was approaching fast.

‘Quick!’ The woman raised her hand. ‘Ask the final question and begone.’

‘The final question?’ I was surprised. ‘There is no final question. I had only three questions and these have all been answered.’

‘They weren’t your questions Ashastû. Those were the questions of your lover’s father. Search your heart. You still have a question left.’

           I bent my head and closed my eyes. I thought of my life. I thought of my old father and my many journeys. And I thought of the sweet face of Zahran. I knew what I wanted to ask.

‘What is love?’ I raised my head and opened up my eyes slowly.

‘Yes!’ She sighed contentedly. ‘What is love?’

‘Love is not desire and love is not the destiny. Instead love is a path of knowledge.’

‘Then knowledge is the destiny?’ I asked.

‘No. There is no destiny. Knowledge comes with walking on the path. It comes with each step. Love is only the instrument to reach understanding. Once understanding comes, love’s task is done.’

          I bent my head again in contemplation. The woman was strange but she was right. I tried to think of Zahran but her sweet face was fast dissolving into a sphere of light. I opened my eyes to thank the strange woman, but there was nobody there. The room was empty. Only a porcelain mask was placed carefully on the stool on which she was sitting.

_________________________________________________________________

             The court of Katib Ahang was in order. He sat on his throne – the very picture of a worried father. Zahran was not fine at all. She was sure some misfortune had befallen her father. Katib did every thing to divert her mind. He arranged dark magicians from the East and exotic dancers from the West. But nothing worked.

‘Your majesty!’ Katib looked up. A boy was standing in front of the throne, holding a small piece of parchment in his hand.

‘Yes?’ He asked.

‘A raven brought this this morning. It has all the answers to your questions that you asked that Zoroastrian scholar.’

Katib eagerly grabbed the parchment and read it from top to bottom.

‘Bravo! The scholar has answered all the questions correctly and has even provided the answer to a fourth question that I never asked.’ He proclaimed loudly.

‘What is the fourth question father?’ Zahran suddenly tore open the black silk curtain and stepped outside. Her face wore a mask of anguish.

‘The fourth question is…….’ Katib overcame his astonishment and read the parchment. ‘What is love?’

‘And what is the answer father?’ She asked anxiously, while rubbing together her beautiful hands.

‘Love is not desire and love is not the destiny. Instead love is a path of knowledge. Knowledge comes with walking on the path. It comes with each step. Love is only the instrument to reach understanding. Once understanding comes, love’s task is done.’ Katib read each word deliberately.

‘Ahh! My Ashastû is no more.’ Zahran exclaimed and fell down on the rug, clutching her delicate heart.

_________________________________________________________

          Hundreds of miles away from Bamiyan and the court of Katib Ahang, I opened up my eyes. It was true that Ashastû was no more. He had become the Man in the Porcelain Mask.

 

6 thoughts on “THE WOMAN IN THE PORCELAIN MASK

  1. Ah, what a magnificent journey in which you took us. It took some time to write, a few weeks I think, or was it a life time?
    My only wonderment is that many of the writers think of God, as if It can be Discovered, like a hidden treasure. But if the treasure is not lifeless and has a will of its own, one cannot discover it, unless it is allowed by the treasure itself in this case. Once discovered, it’s a two way communication,in some form or another.
    Rest all questions are based on the will of the treasure.
    In my very humble opinion. I am still wondering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Writing took days and thinking took more than four decades. I believe your last sentence is a philosophy in it’s own…..I am still wondering. We will continue to wonder till we die and maybe after that too. Knowledge and understanding, limited in scope, comes along with wondering. Walking on the path is all we can do.
      Btw it was a very strange dream which became the basis of this story. I met the woman in the porcelain mask in a caravan sarai. The story was my attempt to make sense of the dream

      Like

  2. .. After reading the story , It seems that may be not all, but the fouth answer of that woman is 100 percent correct. You are walking on the path of knowledge, how lucky u r !MashaAllah. Well written, well done.

    Liked by 1 person

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