Tamil title: Jagan Mithyai (ஜகன்மித்யை)
Translated by: Lucien Zell and Prakash Shankaran
“The Inn River flows through Switzerland. The valley through which it flows is known as Engadin,” said Nambuthiri. I looked at Paramu. He was chewing gum. The movie would start at half past six. It was six. The beginning sounded like a prologue for a big epic.
“Do they cultivate potatoes there?” asked Paramu. I wiped my face. He asked it while blowing and popping a bubble.
For Nambuthiri—who dared to prowl down streets in broad daylight with an antiquated sacred thread on his bare body and a tuft on his head, this ridicule was little more than a speck of dust. The next sentence he declared with clear determination—“The philosopher Nietzsche once walked through that valley.”
Paramu said, “A morning walk is healthy.” Ignoring him, Nambuthiri continued, “While watching the river from the top of a boulder, wisdom dawned in his mind.” Paramu laughed and said to me, “Was that the Bodhi tree or the body tree? Something that you used to talk about… Was that equivalent to Nietzsche’s boulder?” I glanced at my watch. It was 6.05. Catching a movie each Sunday evening had become an unavoidable ritual for us. A ritual that we shared, but not together. Paramu would skip off to some crappy dubbed movie, while I’d dash off to the film society: Christ Stopped at Eboli—the Cannes award winning Italian movie.
Perhaps I should not have collected Nambuthiri from the University entrance—five minutes previously, he had been thrown face first in the road by a security guard. His very calm and cool gesture while getting up and wiping the dust from himself had surprised and impressed me. He looked precisely like a character from an ancient epic, albeit in a modern theatre, appearing with no relevance and blinking his eyes. I asked him what had happened.
Nambuthiri looked at me with utter deference and introduced himself as Melamangalam Appan Nambuthirippad and ordered a cup of tea. I liked that proud posture too. I invited him to the nearby tea stall. After slurping up his cup of tea in a few quick gulps, Nambuthiri opened his huge leather bag; he pulled out eyeglasses, and a few papers which he spread on the table. Flattening the crushed paper surface with his palm, he glanced at me through the upper section of his bifocals and asked in surprisingly proper English, “May I know your good name?”
I replied. “An intellectual?” he inquired. I felt an amazement akin to existentialism. I juggled possible responses inside and replied, “Sometimes.”
Nambuthiri laughed, “Ha! This is philosophy! Real philosophy! Shall we brainstorm some significant ideas?”
It was only 4 o’clock. I had a lot of time. So I brought him to my room and introduced him to Paramu. As usual, he glared at me as if he were perusing a monkey. Nambuthiri proferred us a cursory summary of his lengthy life history. He described how his philosophical discovery could serve as a key to open the door of the secret chamber called the ‘universe’. As well, he explained how the ‘so-called scientists’ were merely quarrelling and gossiping, wasting money by the millions, all the while eating and drinking and ignoring him and his seminal discovery. How the primary thing they lacked was a brain, and the reason for that was racial admixture. According to him, Aryans were losing their pure Aryan brain. The one who had realized this and tried to stop it was Hitler—unfortunately he had been annihilated. Under Communist rule, carving the coconut tree top for rum had become ‘Physics’, distilling the rum was ‘Chemistry’ and all that was blabbered after drinking… that was ‘Philosophy’! There wasn’t a single lucid brain in this entire country. All, all had been infected by Communist poison. There were, thank God, some original intellectual brains remaining in the classical city of Tanjore. Yet before going on to Tanjore, when he’d attempted to enter the Scientific Congress—the security had thrown him in the street. But opportunities had not yet dimmed completely. The only problem remained the shortage of money. Young intellectuals like myself, he insisted, must help to shorten the gap between geniuses like himself and the world.
“Nietzsche intuited an insight,” said Nambuthiri—“that he had stood in that same place and watched the same river precisely like that several times before. Thus the theory of Eternal Recurrence was revealed to humanity.” Nambuthiri looked deep into Paramu’s eyes. Startled, Paramu peered out the window. Other than the tick of the clock, there was complete silence. Again Paramu looked at Nambuthiri and then glanced at me with a foolish smile. With a fixed gaze, Nambuthiri continued in a low-pitched voice, “I’ve seen you exactly like this, in this very room, in the same situation and asked the same question before. Haven’t I?” I could sense Paramu shivering. “No… I mean… I don’t know,” he said.
“Watch, examine carefully the core of your mind. I have asked you exactly like this, several times before,” insisted Nambuthiri.
Paramu’s face paled. His eyes were trembling. Struggling to breathe, he murmured “yes,” and glanced at me with panic.
“…But you are not able to sense it clearly, am I correct? A mild doubt still lingers in the depth of your mind, right?”
“Yes, it’s truly… like this….” Paramu gabbled. He seized my hand with fear. In a husky tone he cried, “Mohan…”
Nambuthiri’s seriousness relaxed. With a smile, he said “Don’t be afraid, there’s no need to worry. It’s a very simple thing.” I looked at Paramu with wonder. He stood with his mouth thrust wide open like a parched hen.
“Nietzsche taught…” Nambuthiri continued, his hand waving in the air, “that matter or substance is limited in the cosmos. But time is infinite. Yes, the matter in this cosmos may be vast in volume; but it is very paltry before the unlimited and infinite space of time. This room, this table, these books, you, me, our voice, our language, words, their meaning—everything, everything was created by intertwining and connecting countless parts of matter. All that happens in the cosmos is just a momentary wave that arises in matter. There are millions of possible combinations for a cube that has just eight sides. For the cosmic matter that has billions of parts, there may be several billion combinations; of a vastness that we can never even begin to imagine…”
Nambuthiri examined me intensely, “But matter is finite. Therefore, there is a limit to the happenings that occur due to the combinations of its numerous parts. Combinations may run to several billion, but they must end one day. What then…?”
“Oh my God!” seethed Paramu with trepidation.
Ignoring him, Nambuthiri reiterated, “What then? Time is infinite. So, what would happen then? Combinations that already occurred would occur again. They must! Right? By the result of millions of combinations that happen in matter, this event—of Appan Nambuthiri talking to Jeyamohan—is happening. If so, the same event should occur again. As well, it must have happened already. In the endless flow of time, this would happen continuously. This is the theory of Eternal Recurrence. Very simply, of course…”
Paramu looked at me and seemed to be completely delighted to have discovered someone in this universe who could eclipse my intellectual impudence.
“Now we arrive at my theory,” said Nambuthiri casually. “My philosophy is based upon Eternal Recurrence. Billions of events are transpiring in the cosmos. From the birth of a star to the birth of a worm, there are different varieties of events occurring here. What’s the difference between larger and smaller events? The combinations required for larger events to occur are fewer and the requisite combinations increase for smaller events—that’s the difference.” A deep silence crept through the room.
“The first thing we should consider is that the interval required for both bigger and smaller events to happen in the cosmic cycle is the same. For example, the time for the event that I am talking to you to repeat in the cosmos is equal to the time taken to the formation of the earth; its annihilation; and reformation. Understand?”
“I understand,” I said.
“No, you can’t possibly understand everything so quickly,” Nambuthiri chuckled, “this is where it gets a bit complicated. We need first to understand the principle of interconnectivity. Everything, every single incident and particle in this cosmos is related to every other. One thing can’t exist without another.
For example, for our conversation to happen again, the human race has had to form, this city has had to be created, this house has had to be constructed… like this, billions of events have had to transpire. Prior to that, the earth had to form, before that the sun, before that the Milky Way. Hence the formation of the sun and the birth of a small worm occur in the same interval.”
Nambuthiri expounded his theory determinedly, “All the actions that happen in the cosmos are repeated again and again in the same interval of time. This time interval is constant.”
Nambuthiri continued, “Friends, we are going to enter into the formulas now. You will understand only if you listen carefully. Let’s denote the combinations as C and the events as D. Therefore, C is inversely proportionate to D, right?”
“Yes… yes,” I hastily replied.
“That means combinations and events are inversely proportional. Interval is constant, so let’s denote it as A. For a large number of combinations to take place, a long time is required. So, C is directly proportionate to A. A is constant, so C is also constant. At last, it means that the combinations never change.”
“True!” I said.
“True? What’s true?” Nambuthiri whined in a teasing tone, “It’s not right to answer without thinking. Didn’t we commence the calculations with the agreement that bigger events require fewer combinations, and smaller events require more combinations?”
“These calculations seem imprecise to me,” said Paramu, feigning comprehension.
“You idiot, shut your mouth,” said Nambuthiri. “What simple stuff this is!”
“So, finally, what do you want to say?”
“That’s a good question!” smiled Nambuthiri. “What I am articulating is that we should not mistake the combinations for the number of parts in the combinations. Larger combinations = C1, and smaller combinations = C2 . For both of them, there must be a constant number. That is, C1/ C2 = Constant. This is the second equation. Now let’s combine all this,” Nambuthiri started to write with a pencil:
- A = C1/ C2
Then he gazed at us keenly and said, “These are the fundamental equations, now let’s move on to the calculations themselves:
C = C1/ C2
therefore C1/ C2 ∝A
therefore A∝ C1/ C2 . A is constant. Therefore, D is also constant.”
I almost slipped across the well-oiled threshold of insanity.
“Very simple!” declaimed Nambuthiri.
“So you mean everything is constant?”
“That’s it!” affirmed Nambuthiri emphatically.
“The cosmic drama unfurls in precise order. All equals are constant. That is, all the cosmic movements are functioning based on a constant number. Let’s refer to this constant as X.”
We collectively paused to relax.
Nambuthiri wiped the sweat from his brow. “This formula will help us to know and measure everything happening in any corner of this cosmos, without moving an inch. If we find that constant number, the secret of the cosmos will rest in our hands.”
“How can we possibly find that?”
“We should research more. Now that we have proved the basis of all cosmic movements is a constant number. Our ancestors referred to this as ‘The One’, ‘OM’. If we could find that constant number by lining up and ordering all the occurrences in the world—wow! How great it feels simply to think about that! I call this constant number Brahma Sankhya—the Absolute Number, and I have named my theory Brahma Sankhya Sutra, ‘Absolute Number Theory’. I have written the original in Sanskrit, the English version is merely for Westerners.”
Paramu had already crept off and retrieved his horoscope. There was a smear of ash on his forehead. He held it under Nambuthiri’s feet with veneration.
“What is this?” Nambuthiri asked.
“Your Holiness, these days I am suffering from a severe lack of peace of mind. My wife has an incurable disease. When will our problems be resolved? Please show us a path.”
“Hey Paramu, what are you doing?” I shouted.
Nambuthiri cried, “I am talking pure science, you cretin. I don’t know this esoteric crap at all.”
“You are a sage. Please don’t give up on us, the poor ones,” Paramu whimpered into silence.
Nambuthiri looked to me helplessly.
My head was blasting. I didn’t know what was happening.
Nambuthiri went on, “Our consciousness revolves around the mega space of time. Prior memories are deposited in our deep mind. We can recall them through meditation. That is precisely what happened to Nietzsche.”
I was running in the dark slamming repeatedly into myriad walls. A sudden light!
“Nambuthiri,” I shouted. “Stop, there is something I must say.” Sliding the papers back into his bag, Nambuthiri glared up at me with dismay.
“All this is wrong,” I said.
“What?!” he asked furiously.
“This philosophy is wrong,” I said firmly.
“What are you blathering about?”
“I’m not blathering. Your philosophy is total nonsense.”
“Nonsense? You fool! Pray tell me, in which formula did you detect a single flaw?”
“Formula? Shit! Didn’t you speak about Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, wasn’t that the origin of your philosophy?”
“That premise itself is wrong.”
“Wrong? What is wrong with it? Explicate.”
“You said matter is finite. That is wrong. Matter is also infinite, like time.”
“Don’t you know Einstein?”
“Don’t you know the deeper implications of E = mc2? It is far more than a simple equation, it is a philosophy which explains that matter and energy are the same. If matter is multiplied by the square of the speed of light, the amount of energy can be measured.”
“What?” Nambuthiri shouted with panic.
“Go and read it for yourself. If matter moves at the speed of light, it can be converted into energy. Energy can become matter. Therefore, there is no limit to energy, thus matter is also limitless.”
“Einstein was wrong!”
I laughed out loud, “Yes. Only your madness is right. Get lost and try to read.”
“I see… you low-caste fool… are you challenging me? I will prove it. Blabbering that matter and energy are the same?! I’ll show you!”
“Look, enough of your silly games. If you bother me again, I’ll kick you.”
“Who are you to say my Brahma Sankhya is wrong? Your Einstein isn’t worth my breath. I’ll prove it.” Nambuthiri’s face turned red and his body shivered. His fierce eyes pierced me. He flew out in a rage and screamed while striding down the street. Shouting uninterruptedly, he departed.
“Extraordinary brain,” muttered Paramu with admiration. “You shouldn’t have scolded him like that.”
“Whom scolded whom? I just informed him that his philosophy was bunk.”
“Huh. Leave it buddy… Do you think I’m an idiot, unaware of your tricks? Poor Nambuthiri, he doesn’t know chemistry, so you pulled out some formula and cheated him.”
I tried hard to control myself and asked softly, “Who said it was chemistry?”
Paramu, with a victorious laugh, answered, “I’ve seen that formula in Nana’s chemistry book. You can’t fool me!”
I realized that there was no use explaining anything further to him. “Let’s forget it, he will never turn up around here again.”
Within a month Nambuthiri returned. He looked very luminous this time. Paramu was elsewhere. “May I come in?” he asked from behind the door. He swept inside while I was hesitating, still considering his request.
He reclined on a chair and smiled, “What you said the other day is a significant truth.” He continued, “I am very grateful to you and you deserve my gratitude. My greatest mistake was that I hadn’t yet read Einstein. I have burnt all my formulas.”
I was delighted. Determined not to broach that subject anymore and pain him any further, I inquired “What are you reading now?”
“I went through this more extensively,” he said, “You know how beautifully Einstein’s theory and the theory of Eternal Recurrence mutually agree with one another? Wonder, great wonder! He must indeed be a genius, he must belong to our clan.”
Nambuthiri smiled shyly, “Well, perhaps my clan.”
Could I keep from laughing?
“You think that I’m exaggerating,” said Nambuthiri. “I’m not exaggerating at all, certainly, I concede, Einstein must be a genius.”
I drifted into a kind of trance.
Nambuthiri plucked open his leather bag and removed some new paper scrolls. “What does Einstein’s philosophy say? Energy changes into matter. Matter then converts into energy. This also comes under the auspices of Eternal Recurrence.” Gazing at me keenly, he asked “Wonder how?”
“Listen. Energy converts into matter. There are billions of parts in matter. Several billion combinations of these parts are the reason for all events in this material universe. When the combinations exhaust, matter attains completeness and converts back to energy. This is one block of events. In the next block, the same events occur again. The reason is the limitation of the number of combinations.”
Nambuthiri chuckled with his mouth wide open. With great enthusiasm he leaned forward, “The time interval between these two blocks is equal to the interval of repetition of one event in the cosmos. Let me explain how….”
When it was dusk, he arrived at the same constant number. I felt a burning in my stomach.
“Nambuthiri…” I said with poise, “Yet again you’ve missed a very crucial point.”
“What?” asked Nambuthiri. His eyes shrunk.
“Energy doesn’t convert to matter directly.”
“Energy becomes particles like protons, neutrons and electrons. These particles join together to form an atom. All matter in the cosmos is formed of these atoms.”
“Which idiot said so?”
“The idiot called Modern Science. Please go and read.”
Nambuthiri’s lips commenced to quiver. His entire body shivered as if he was on the verge of crying.
“If there is one electron in an atom then it becomes one type of molecule. If there are two then it becomes a different molecule. Thus the difference in the molecules is dependent upon how many electrons and neutrons that the atom possesses. It can be any number. Therefore, combinations are also infinite.”
Nambuthiri sat. Paralyzed. His head nodded. Then suddenly a scream burst from him. Burying his face in his hands, he started weeping heavily. I was shocked. I didn’t know how to console him. Like a maniac, he ripped all his papers. Fragments scattered through my room. For a moment he looked at them with awe and then he ran towards the door.
I truly hoped that Nambuthiri had got rid of his madness. But the very next month he caught me in the street.
“Sir, what you have said is totally correct. Now science and philosophy have merged into one. I read extensively about the structure of the atom. Look! What a wonder it is?! Everything is contained in the structure of the atom. You know exactly how it confirms Eternal Recurrence? Not just that Sir… another great wonder! I am coming to you… just to convey that.” Nambuthiri hastily pulled out some papers again, “The constant number of combinations is there exactly in the structure of the atom…”
I am not clear now about what I did then. With an uncontrolled burst of fury, I pushed Nambuthiri out into the street and scolded him—I remember very little now. I warned him not to meet me again. Then, when I reached home, I felt the unbearable pain of a guilty conscience. I realized how deeply Nambuthiri’s disappointed and insulted face had registered in me. I wouldn’t be able to erase it. Why had I behaved like that? I had kicked down an old man of my father’s age, kicked him into the street. In a way he was simply an unadulterated child. Could it be labeled insanity? No, in all ways he was in possession of full consciousness. In some regards, he was brilliant. He had an immense brain that could devour a science book with complex ideas in a single day. But…. that constant number! Eternal Recurrence! How had it invaded his brain? Like a worm that had surreptitiously insinuated itself into his brain, munching it slowly, this idea was slowly destroying him. Perhaps I could have been a bit kinder to him. I should have behaved more politely. I didn’t show him a grain of mercy. I was fully geared to demolish him. Why?
I wished to meet Nambuthiri again. I wished to balance my guilt by showing kindness and mercy to him. But that was not possible; he might have gone to Tanjore.
I did happen to meet Nambuthiri again in a totally different and pitiful situation. It was the final meeting. I had gone to Trissur to have a discussion with a Malayali poet when all at once a reader who happened to be there mentioned ‘Bramha Sankhya Nambuthiri’. He mentioned that Nambuthiri lay dying in a local government hospital. The next day I saw Nambuthiri’s dried, lean, and torn physique in the bad-smelling hospital veranda on a dirty ripped mat, facing the wall.
Sitting next to him, I called softly, “Nambuthiri…” When I shook him twice he opened his eyes. He looked at me through pain-dimmed eyes, “Who?” he asked.
“It’s Jeyamohan… don’t you recognize me?”
“I am not able to…”
Immediately, a sense of sorrow arose in me. Damn! Mine had been one among the myriad faces that had insulted him. My God! Perishing like a worm with no one to take care of him. Such a useless life!
I couldn’t tolerate that. I thought, in his whole life the one thing that Nambuthiri never realized was—the senselessness of his philosophy—he should not know that ever. Let him die with a feeling that he was a great thinker—let him die peacefully. Realizing his philosophy’s flaw was equal to realizing his whole life was utter nonsense. That should not happen.
I said, “I am your disciple. Only now have I realized your greatness.”
Nambuthiri looked as if he didn’t grasp my words.
“I am researching the theory of Eternal Recurrence. I have proved your research and your discoveries are vital, and correct. Soon the whole world is going to be talking about you.”
“Eternal Recurrence!” shrieked Nambuthiri with a meaningless stare.
“Yes. Brahma Sankhya Sutra.”
Suddenly Nambuthiri started to weep. His screech hit my abdomen. I held him. His dried body shivered. His face flooded with tears.
“Master!” I said, “Please look at me. Don’t cry!”
Nambuthiri screamed and cried without cease. Not knowing what else to do, I held him.
“All is a waste. My entire life is a total waste.”
My spine chilled. That’s all—nothing more could be done. I slowly let him recline onto the floor. His tears dripped on the pillow. “All is wasted—everything is wasted.”
So… the veil was finally falling?
The old man clutched my hands, “I don’t know the purpose of my life. Why this? My whole life, I traveled from place to place and explained my theory. Nobody understood it; nobody… my philosophy is going to die with me…”
He peered at me with a fierce glimmer in his eyes. “But why has all this happened? If it already happened so many times before? Am I going to live and roam useless and die like this repeatedly again and again and again?… What does it mean? Why must this happen infinitely in the space of time? I don’t understand it. I don’t want to become like this anymore… but nothing can be done. It is an infinite cycle… Eternal Recurrence… it will happen again and again… my God…”
Quietly, I released his hand and stood up. The mind is amazing.
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Brilliant, lucid translation. Brings out the literary quality of the original very well. Great work, translators.
One comment, though. The very last sentence in the original is மனம் பிரமித்திருந்தது. It is in past tense. It should have been translated as “The mind was at amaze” or “The mind stood amazed”. The current translation, “The mind is amazing” stands disconnected with the previous sentence.
Thanks Jataayu for the nice words and suggestions. We have communicated it to the translators.