Tag: Short Story

“What Does Your Enemy Say?” By Jitendra Kumar Sharma

“What Does Your Enemy Say?”
By Jitendra Kumar Sharma

“What does your enemy say?” Our teacher, Radha Krishnaji at Bhupendra High School, Narnaul, a district town in the erstwhile Patiala State, was a Master of English idioms and made us learn so many of them by rot.
This is idiomatic English; it means, “What is the time by your watch?”
He used to wear a big round watch tied by a slipknot to a noose-like cord suspended from his neck into the front pocket of his shirt. He pulled up the strings and held his pocket watch in his right hand, looked at it cursorily for a moment and repeated: “What does your enemy say?”

I learned the idiom and it got stuck to my memory. Whenever I met my classmates, we turned back in time, recalled our Master Ji and asked: “Who is our enemy? Is it Time? Or is it our watch?

Our confabulation always ended inconclusively, leaving us in a greater state of confusion and excitement about “What does your enemy say?”

We never dared ask questions in the class, nor were we allowed to make suggestions nor lead a discussion. That this idiom would keep nagging me all my life, and lead me to strange actions and experiences, I had little idea then! It has triggered me to act in foolhardy ways to seek practical and experiential answers to the question: “What does your enemy say?”

“I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop”, bring Master Radha Krishna ji back and tell him, “No one in England I have heard use this expression nor in Canada, nor in other English speaking countries”. None of my Professors at the University of Toronto where I wrote my thesis, “Achilles’ Spear: Problem of Time and Consciousness” was familiar with this expression.

What does your enemy say? I was impelled to answer this question many a time in thought and action and felt even more unsatisfied like cigarette smokers craving for one puff more!

I had not yet fulfilled all the requirements for my doctorate that I got a job offer from the University of Guelph. My main reason to prefer Guelph U was that it had the so-called Trimester system. That is, if I taught three semesters in a row, I could avail of the next two semesters as paid vacation, traveling anywhere I liked. In Two-semester universities, every seventh year was the Sabbatical Year.

A couple of days after joining my academic duties, I joined the Guelph Flying Club. Each time, I went up in the sky with Mike Taylor, our Flying Instructor, I felt like I was soaring into a ‘No-time Zone’-Canada has six of them! Each time, Mike turned off the throttle perfect calm settled around us and I would close my eyes. Mike had to shove me to resume flying.

One morning, I went to the Flying Club and found a Cessna 180 whirring on the runway.

I could not resist the mechanical bird. I did not care to sign the log book. Just jumped into the cockpit and surged into the sky. On reaching the serene heights, I silenced the engine. The little Cessna stalled and hung in the air. I closed my eyes and silently uttered: “What does your enemy say?”

No time here. No watch on my wrist. No answer to the question either. Only deep, dreamless sleep. I do not remember how long but it lasted till I felt a sensation of a steep descent. It roused me from my meditation. Cessna was plummeting into, what later I was told, Guelph Lake.

I was disqualified from the Flying Club membership and earned a good deal of free publicity. This did not please Dean H.M.H. Mackinnon who summoned me to his office. Heavy classical scholarship permanently enthroned in his thick glasses, his unsmiling face looked unusually scary.

“What are your plans for next year?”

I dared not say, “I have no plans”. He was a pucca North American WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] and had little affection for those who do not plan their time.

I simply uttered, “I intend to go to India at the end of the third semester”

“You are not going anywhere, Jitendra. You will write your General Examination and fulfill other Ph.D. requirements– if you wish your contract to be renewed.”

I did not take the threat seriously and came out of the Dean’s office determined to go to India. My Guru, Marshall McLuhan had already published a few articles by me in his “Explorations”, a highly respected Quarterly.

My dissertation too was with a publisher. I had also read a long paper at The Learned Societies of Canada which was accepted by “The Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research”.

“Publish or perish” was the rule for academic survival and I was confident of getting an academic post. Several new universities were also coming up in Canada then.

“Plan your work and work your plan, Jitendra”, was Dean Mackinnon’s parting advice.

“What about spontaneity?” I shouted to myself most inaudibly and exited.

I had never fancied myself to be an academic. I wanted to be a wanderer if I could afford to be one.

I returned to my office, called my friendly Bank Manager Mutrie who, as ever was ready to finance my trip to India, which included the purchase of a factory-fresh Diesel Mercedes at their Stuttgart Manufacturing plant in Germany under a ’Travel Now, Pay Later’ plan.

At the end of the third semester, I flew to England and after a few days at Cambridge where I met E.M. Forster I flew to Stuttgart to pick up my Mercedes. I had to wait in their Canteen as it was being given the final touches and a Carnet du Passage was being prepared for me to drive it away from Germany.

The only other buyer was a Malagasy diplomat, linah Luciano, a very articulate, middle-aged, most appropriate person to speak to about Time.

“We Malagasy experience time as flowing behind us, literally behind our head and the past keeps spanning before us”.

“How?”, I said, feeling as if I was doing Shirs Aasan like Nehru trying to see the world upside down.

“It’s simple; the past we can see and know, it always interplays with our actions”.

Feeling even more ignorant, I again said, “How?”

“Actually, we go on consulting our ancestors, we even dig out their bones, if required for seeking their advice”, explained Monsieur Luciano.

“Like Mackenzie King of Canada who used to consult his dead mother”, I rejoined.

“Who, Mackenzie King?”

“He was a former Prime Minister of Canada”, I informed.

“And how do you perceive the future?” I asked.

“Actually, we do not. Anyway, it is behind our heads, so we cannot see it”.

“It is not time but people’s volition that decides things in Madagascar”.

“I don’t understand”, I confessed.

“In Germany and Switzerland, have you noticed how obsessed they are with punctuality? Trains departing 7-03 Yverdon, arriving 7-49 Lucerne”.

“Is it not good?”

“We are not talking about good or bad. In Madagascar, a train shall leave only when it is full”

I relished what diplomat Luciano was telling me.

“Is the train meant for people, or is it being run for Time?” Luciano had a mischievous smile for the topsy-turvy world of western civilization.

“In my country, a train will not leave until it is full” and “No company is ready to run a passenger train there. We have only freight trains.”

My Mercedes had arrived. I took leave of the learned diplomat and started driving. Pride and patriotism intensified by an excruciating twisted ankle held me up for three weeks at Charlottenburg, West Berlin where Netaji Subhash Bose had stayed as Hitler’s guest.

Crossing the Berlin Wall, a most friendly Russian Immigration Officer issued me a Visa in a matter of minutes. We together drove in my Mercedes to the nearby Ratskeller in the basement of the Rathaus.

Over lunch, I said, “Time runs faster in West Berlin”. Vladislav, my Russian friend of the moment, promptly retorted, “They are all crazy on the other side of the Wall”, then apprehensively tipped, “I must tell you there is no Mercedes Service in Russia. Change your route”.

Thence, my Mercedes and I crossed from Europe to Asia at Uskudr on a ferry. The blue waters reminded me of many other places, of Port Said and Capri where the sea and sky had appeared literally to mate merging the Here into Eternity. Time and Endlessness of Time!

“What does your enemy say?” was on my mind and I had my heart’s fill asking and getting answers of all kinds of people I met during my long journey.

At Trabzon, a mountain resort on the Black Sea, a young Turk, Abuzer Abidin took me to a Hamam, a Turkish Bath, where we were bathed, wrapped in white chaddars and served Kahava. We came out and walked up to a cliff overlooking the Black Sea. I asked Abuzer, “Is there any phrase like ‘What does your enemy say’ in Turkish?”

“Let us not talk of enemies. We are friends”. He planted two kisses, one each on my two cheeks, took away a little black comb peeping out from the front pocket of my jacket and put a green one from his pocket into mine and parted.

At Salonica, capital of Greek Macedonia, I stopped several academics at Aristotle University to enquire, “How would Aristotle respond to ‘What Does Your Enemy Say?’ Their answers setoff a splitting ache and serious doubts in my head about Aristotle’s Greek origin, even his existence.

Did I fulfill my wish to stop Time or did Time stop for me? How and where I met my Masterji? How old was he and how old was I when we met? Did I ask, “Time or Watch, who is our enemy, Sir?” Or, I simply forgot about it.

On reaching India, I did drive to Narnaul. Met my old schoolmates. They said, “Master Radha Krishnaji retired at 55, not seen since”.

I was slothful in my search for Masterji because my cousin, Sudhir, Deputy Manager with Indian Oil Corporation at Varanasi was abducted by oil mafia during an Inquiry he was conducting in a case of diesel pilferage from the Company’s containers at Mughal Sarai.

Instead of Varanasi, I drove to 1, Rajpur Road, Dehradun where my stepmother Shanta Sharma lived [now, Mridula Sharma, my step-sister; the reader may please check]. Finding me despondent, she straightway took me to Swami Satyanand’s Rishikesh Ashram.

Most of the way we were silent but as we reached, she said, ”Swamiji is eighty-two years but he appears 52 or less”.

“How do you know him?”

“I know him from my Gurukul days. After your father’s death in Nasik, I and Mridula returned to our Khukhri Market Flat, Dehradun and renewed my contact with Swamiji’s Ashram. Seth Ram Prasadji also used to come to the Ashram. This is where Mridula started babbling about her previous birth and recognized Sethji as her father in the previous birth. Sethji soon adopted her under Swamiji’s guidance and gifted Mridula 1, Rajpur Road where now we live.”

I had read the story in papers.

We are born again and again in Time. Which Time? Time of the clocks and calendars or there is some other Time!

We sat in front of Swamiji, he on his raised Aasan. He surely looked less than fifty. Should one believe one’s eyes or the municipal or school records or calendars? That is why the Hindus care little for history, rulers, rajas, maharajas, things temporal and much more for Sanyasis!

Many devotees sought Swamiji’s advice and he was generous with his time and wisdom. My stepmother nudged me to ask something.

“Why do we take the Sea and Sky as symbols of Eternity?”

I thought it was a profound question but Swamiji debunked the whole idea of Eternity and deflated my academic ego.

“This is your westernized tutored sensibility; there is no such thing as Here or Eternity. There is Time or the Timeless”.

I gaped at him.

“Can one live timelessly?” I timidly asked.

“Yes, in time and timelessly. Not so mysterious either. Live desirelessly and you are living timelessly”.

Finding me nonplussed, Swami Satyanandji turned his gaze to Mridula and said to me,
“Look at Mridula! No death or birth for her, only exchange of atoms. Changing places. She got what was hers in her last birth. 1, Rajpur Road”.

More than his discourse on Time, death, birth, timeless, I was lured by his looks. “Is he 82 or 48, 47?”

While driving back, I said to my step-mother, “I wish I could live with Swamiji rest of my life”.

She sighed sadly, “Your father was in the habit of leaving things half-done or undone”.

I returned to Canada. Dean MacKinnon did not renew my contract at Guelph U but Donald Theall invited me to join McGill. I completed my doctorate and am still teaching at McGill. There is no retirement age in Canada.

That night, I had returned from my seventh sabbatical leave from Birds of Paradise, Papua; was still unpacking when John Harney called:
“I am at the Bistro. Come”.

We had several beers and then drove around aimlessly.

“Have you regretted giving up academic life?”

“No, I have tons of money. I joined my Dad’s business”

“What do you do with tons of money? Nothing much. Make more of it”.

“Do you also have tons of Time?”

“I have no time for anyone, not even for myself at times. But ‘Time is Money’ makes time pass quickly for me”.

I don’t know when we reached the Laurentian Mountains.

“This is Vajrayāna Vihar”, said John Harney.
“James George, our first High Commissioner to India brought lots of Tibetan Buddhists; a mad man in brown Lama habit is seen lurking about this lodge. I knew you will love it here”

“Yes, John leave me here”

In that uncertain morning hour, crowding, whirling fall leaves made rapid short loud sounds at times imitating several asthma patients rasping, wheezing, chasing one another as black-white spruce, balsam fir, larch, poplar, white birch swung and danced on the shoulders of tall mountains feeling taller and seeing farther than they.

Suddenly, I was blown toward and caught the sight of my Masterji.

“Masterji?”

“Jitendra?”

Were we ghosts? Or like ones we see in dreams.

As I moved forward, I saw Masterji did not have his specs, he appeared less than forty and I was more than eighty.

Reading worldly curiosity on my face, he said: “Yes, I no longer wear glasses; I was fifty years when I taught you “What does your enemy say?” I had myself learned it from my teacher”.

He tweaked his ears as he recalled his teacher.

“Now?”

“Now I am forty, my son”

My son! Someone my son’s age, calling me ‘my son’!

Anyway, I touched his feet. “Time means less to you than it does to me and much, much less than it does to John Harney”.

“We at Vajrayāna Vihar do not live in the past, present, future.”

“Don’t you live in Time?”

“We do, all things and beings do”

“Then, how is it, you and I have different vestiges of time?” said I.

“Your world is too conscious of time; increasingly, it wants everything instantly. Soon children will have no time to grow, have no memories. No childhood either. They will be eighty, ninety, one-fifty, even before they are ten. You are lucky to live on memories at eighty-two.”

“Come with me Masterji, and teach these things to others”, I implored.

“As soon as I step out, your world will treat me as a mad and old man of one-twenty. I might die of old age”.

“In fact, I had gone mad after my retirement but Lama James is always in need of madmen. They perceive right, he says.”

“How do you stop time, Masterji?”

“We don’t”

“Then?”

“We live internally”

“Internally?”

“Yes, Man began to know death from life when he started measuring time.”

“You mean, he began to live externally”, I said.

“Yes, Time appears but is not. Your age and know the time when you live externally”

Before I could speak further, my Masterji said,
“Are you carrying that picture postcard you wrote to Sudhir at Capri but never posted it because you had no Italian stamps?”

“I always carry it in the hope of handing it to Sudhir myself”

“You can do it now”, Masterji pointed to Sudhir running toward me. He was as we were together in school, fourteen years!”

I recognized him alright. He has always existed in my memory.

“Bir [brother in Haryanavi]”

“Where were you? Did not the Mafia abduct you at Mughal Sarai?”

“They did. I escaped and never felt like returning to Sansar, the Time-World. I met George in Bhutan; he brought me here.”

We hugged,I eighty-two-year elder and he, a fourteen-year kid brother. I gave him the picture postcard:
“Dear Sudhir, Ever since I shipped myself via Llyod Tristano’s ‘Asia’ from Bombay to Genoa,I have longed for that glimpse of Eternity as mer and moon fore-played and the ‘Asia’ skirted the Island of Capri in the Mediterranean! I threw my wristwatch into the gentle sea, sort of offering from a Time’s creature –Jitendra”

I am packing for my eighth sabbatical leave at eighty-nine. Finally, I am going to Madagascar. I shall meet Luciano and read out to him my story!