Millions of years ago, the earth split open like an eyelid, beneath a dark, frozen sea. Lava erupted from it like a giant tower of fire. The sea around it was eternally turbulent while steam rose and stood on it like silver strands.
Steam continued to pour down on the erupting lava. The lava cooled down and closed the rift and the eye went into a deep slumber. As the lava cooled down entirely, it turned into black soil. Then birds came to disperse seeds and microorganisms. Then came the man. He turned the place into a town.
This is how the Pacific islands, which scattered beyond all the other continents and lay east of Australia, were formed. One of the many islands in the Tafea region of the Vanuatu Republic was Tanna, a banana-shaped island about forty kilometers long and fifty kilometers wide.
A small flight was about to take off from Brisbane, Australia to Tanna’s Wide Cross airport. I met Eva Baker while I was standing in line to get on it. She smiled at me and said, “Yello!”
I smiled back and said, “Hello!”
“Vanuatu! A beautiful name!” she said. Her broken English suggested she was European.
She had red hair cropped like boys, red ears, a slightly upturned nose, and a mouth that looked like a red streak. A sharp little European face on a tiny body.
I knew she wanted to talk. I don’t usually talk to strangers. Especially this trip being a kind of a secret mission, I wanted to avoid talking to others.
But it seemed she was in the mood to learn my personal details. When we passed emigration she said, “Excuse me, your name’s Paul, right?”
I wondered if she’d seen my passport. I said, “Yes, that’d be me.”
“I’m Eva Baker, a Dutch. I’m in a small group with the name Gaya. I’m currently on a touring plan.”
I guessed what was coming. But my skepticism remained as to whether to react.
“You too are from the same group, right?”
Offering her hand, she said, “Happy to meet. We’re going to the place. To Tanna Island.”
As we waited to board the flight, I said, “One of the rules says we should travel alone.”
“I know. But I’m nervous. I’ve seen this Tanna island on the world map. It seems it lies somewhere beyond the entire human race.”
“Indeed it does.”
She had a slight tremor in her body. “How long have you been in this cult?” she asked.
“I’ve been in this for two years.”
I replied with an ‘oh!’ that suggested that I wasn’t interested in this conversation.
She didn’t seem to notice my indifference. “Have you attended similar ceremonies before?” she asked. She might be twenty-five, but she had hesitant, shy, and frightened eyes and dizzy expressions like that of an eighteen-year-old.
“Me neither,” she said, shuddering even more. “I smoke a lot. I’d like to smoke now. But there’s no smoking room around here.”
I remained silent.
She said, “I write software. I’ve got no family.”
“I’m in the media. Right now, I too do not have any family .”
She took a moment to recognize my subtle hint and replied, “Oh.”
Without us even realizing it, we were getting to know each other. I looked at her again. She wore casual clothing: a pair of jeans and a cotton shirt. But she had nail polish on her fingers and toes.
“Excuse me, Paul! What do you think about this cult?” She seemed to have prepared her question during the brief interval.
“I don’t think you can call this a cult. This is only a pretense. An interesting, collective performance. A small picnic play. Or, some kind of a reality show.”
“Are you for real?” she uttered, with real disappointment.
Her student-like features might’ve prompted me to continue. “Look, Eva! The century we live in has lost its mysteries rather quickly. Twenty years ago, there was no easy way to learn about an island like Tanna. Now, we’ve got the entire world map on our cellphones. Thirty years ago, the same map would’ve taken the space of a giant book with thousands of pages. One man alone couldn’t have carried it.”
She seemed excited even at this small idea. “When I was young, I loved looking at the atlas. Like a maniac, I dreamt of distant lands and tiny islands.”
“Until the last century, everything had been a mystery to man. There was a charm as well as horror in everything. The sky, the sea, the earth, the creatures all were terrifying and attractive at the same time. Many have wandered around the world in search of mysteries; have flown on gliders; have climbed Everest. Behold! They’ve crossed the seas and come to this island too.”
She nodded. I could feel her heart swelling.
“The man of the past couldn’t stay indoors. He was always anxious about the unconquered world that lay stretched out. The lifetime of the adventurers of the past was astonishingly low. Once, a Dutchman who was the captain of a ship got arrested in our country. He was the one who eventually built our town. His name was Benedict de Lannoy. At the age of eighteen, he left his home to travel seven thousand kilometers on the sea and reached our land…”
“Yes! It indeed was a golden period.” Her face lit up when she said it. “From a young age, my favorite books have been the eighteenth-century naval adventure fiction. I’d thoroughly memorized Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!”
“Just imagine! How many fantasies! Jules Verne’s Science fiction, Walter Scott’s historical novels, Horror novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Melville’s Moby Dick…” I said. “Man’s imagination had exploded and grew to monstrous proportions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A great deal of the literature, art, and fantasy we are familiar with today originated during that time. At least five thousand novels from that period alone can be said to be of epic quality.”
She was becoming relaxed as I continued to speak.
“A cult is a small group that seriously believes in something. Many cults were born during the last few centuries. Cults have always existed in human history, but a few of those went on to become religions. More than a thousand cults were formed in Central Asia between the first and the seventh century. Of these, only Christianity and Islam had established themselves as religions. Many cults disappeared without a trace. Religions like the Manichaeism of Persia grew up a little but vanished within a generation. Within Islam came numerous sub-cults like the Ahamadias and within Christianity like the Gnostic groups.”
I knew she was listening intently. I wanted to talk too. I hadn’t spoken much after leaving Mumbai.
“These ancient cults were all born naturally out of the most intense beliefs. On the contrary, in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, cults were formed by sheer designing. Myths and beliefs were deliberately fabricated and spread by constantly talking about them. The best example is the Theosophical Society. They created myths like the continents of Atlantis and Lemuria. How many such myths! Think of the Bermuda Triangle and the mysterious city of Shambhala in Tibet!”
She said, “There’s a group that believes in the existence of Atlantis. They say there are a thousand cities submerged in the sea. I’m in that cult too. So is Graham Hancock.”
“Aren’t you too in the group that records the experiences of sightings of flying saucers?”
“Yes, I am. How did you know? Are you in it too?”
I smiled. “No.”
“Erich Von Daniken started it. It’s a secret committee consisting of top officials in intelligence and the military.”
“Hundreds of such groups and secret little cults are out there,” I said. “Neither the creators nor the followers fully believe in their authenticity. Captivated by their mysteriousness, the followers fancy that these cults make their time exhilarating and life meaningful. But none of the cults last long.”
I continued, “Do you know why several cults and myths originated in the nineteenth-century? During that period, due to colonialism, the entire world had come closer. Through print media, information spread rather quickly and the long-standing mysteries of the world were instantly proved nonexistent. Suddenly the curtain was removed and the world stood naked. A naked world is no place for arts or celebrations. Man requires something mysterious to stimulate his imagination. Hence new forms of myths emerged as literature and the new age spirituality. A typical example is Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan. Several new spiritual leaders had emerged, like Osho…”
“I like Gurdjieff. I read him a lot.”
“After globalization the world has become even more transparent. The world is now only a google database. No mystery is left unsolved. Powerful digital cameras can go into the depths of the seas and into the jungles. The world has become like a porn star.”
She laughed. “You talk like a writer.”
“I am a writer.”
“Really!” It was cute how she kept her hand on her mouth to show her surprise . “You really are a writer?”
“Yes. I write in Malayalam. Twenty short story collections, several travelogues. A few books have been translated into English too.”
“Do you have a pseudonym?”
“I do. Paul Appachan.”
“Appachan…what does it mean?”
“It means father.”
“Ha! Are you a father?” she asked.
I laughed. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
She smiled, tilting her head back, and shook her head a little.
I continued my discourse. “All mysteries get explained immediately. Therefore, it is impossible to continue to have a blind faith in cults. At least those who read and think cannot,” I said.
“True. That’s my problem too,” she said. “No matter what cult I join, I get bored in just a few days because of my skepticism. I get even more depressed when its followers insist on a fierce belief.”
“I felt the same ten years ago, when I joined this cult,” I said.
We were invited to board the plane. The plane wasn’t even half full. I took my seat and looked out the window. The coastal city of Brisbane. Few minutes later we flew over the blue expanse of the ocean with its rippling tiny waves. Occasionally emerald-like islands shone on the Pacific.
She came and sat next to me. “You started to say something about this cult,” she said.
“What’s so unique about this island we go to? Why do so many people visit there from all over the world? Tell me what you know.”
“This is one of the many islands in the Tafea region of the Vanuatu Republic that has been under French rule. The people of this island have even led a struggle for secession from Vanuatu.”
“Melanesians live here. To the south of the island is Mount Tukosmera, which is three thousand five hundred feet high.”
She assumed the attitude of a schoolgirl as she rolled her eyes and continued, “This Island was created by a giant earthquake. A little hole that still reminds people of the earthquake is Mount Yasur, a volcano that continues to spew smoking lava even today. They call it the non-healing wound.”
“The lava melted and overflowed, creating a plain called Sulfur Bay, a very fertile area because of its proximity to Lake Siwi, which invariably overflows during the rainy season.”
“You’ve covered almost everything,” I said. “But left out an important person.”
“James Cook! The British Sailor! In 1974, he arrived here aboard the HMS resolutions. That’s why the port here is called the Port Resolutions.”
“What else? The people here speak Kwamera.”
“You’re playing with me.” She whimpered.
“John Frum,” I said.
“Ssss.” she threw her hand in the air, her face blushing. “How did I miss him? It never crossed my mind that John Frum was from here.”
“This is his place. This island has a special place in the world because of him.”
As if mesmerized, she was dwelling in her thoughts. It was funny to look at her upturned nose sideways.
“What do you think? Is there really a person called John Frum?’ I asked.
“Tell me what you think.”
“The books I’ve read say he exists.”
“In what form?”
“Why do you ask?”
“There’s been talk about him for the last hundred years, since 1910. If he were human, he would’ve been more than a hundred years old now.”
“Some believe he lives in spirit form.”
“It may be so.”
I laughed out loud.
“Why do you laugh?”
“I do believe in them. I’ve seen them.”
She looked upset.
“John Frum is an imaginary name,” I said, laughing. “A collective imagination of the tribes of Tanna Island. Their belief is that there resides a god named Keraberamun on top of the volcano. There was a dynasty with the same name in India too. Cheraman Peruman.”
“You don’t say!”
“Yes. Keram means coconut. That’s where our state Kerala got the name from. The kings of our land were called Cheras. Tanna’s main crop is coconut too!”
“Is there a connection between your land and this island?”
“I don’t think there is. But the words of a language spread through ears, like the seeds are dispersed through birds. Our land is associated with Indonesia. Indonesia has ties with Vietnam. Vietnamese have settled on this island.”
“Since the 1800s, whites have dominated this island. During that period, Keraberamun appeared in the hearts of the island people and commanded they renounce the religion of the Whites, their money, their administration, and everything else and ordered them to go back to the old ways of life. When asked how else they would acquire money and goods, the god promised that one day a White man would appear and provide them with everything. The people called their future god John Frum. John, the White. Frum means coming. The white man, coming.”
She looked disappointed.
“Haven’t you read about this?”
“Haven’t you heard about the Cargo cult? Marvin Harris and Jared Diamond have written about it. David Attenborough has made a documentary on it.”
I laughed. “You’ve learned to read only what’s necessary.”
“Why read something that destroys your beliefs?”
“Fair enough. But since you sit right next to me, I want to destroy your beliefs.”
“During World War II, US troops had stationed their units on Tanna island and set up anti-aircraft artillery. They’d fly American flags next to their cannons. Aiming at those flags, food, and other stuff would be delivered via air. The people of Tanna were watching this. They placed trunks of coconut trees on the ground and flew the American flags next to them to deceive the air troops into believing they were cannons and received cargo from the air.”
Her smile suggested that she knew exactly what I would say. She would never fully believe in cults. That was her only problem.
“Even after the war, the people waited with the trunks of coconut trees and the American flags, hoping that the white would send them cargo from the sky. The Cargo cult combines this belief with the old John Frum cult. It had lasted until recently. All its followers are gone now. Today, the cult is held once a year, only as a ritual. Even today, there is a red cross planted and a US army flag flown during the ceremony.”
“Are we going to witness the same on this trip?”
“Not really. But ours is a kind of Cargo cult too.”
“We know why the cargo falls from the sky, yet we perform those rituals regardless. Just for fun.”
“That may not be the right word,” I said. “Imagine the bodily movements during sex between a man and a woman. When similar movements are repeated while still wearing clothes, without engaging in actual sex, with an awareness that it is not real sex, the couple can slowly enter the same state of excitement and pleasure.”
“We’re going to perform some of the oldest rituals in the same manner. Unlike those who’d done them with absolute faith, we’d perform them with an awareness that they’re mere rituals. But we’d still attain the same anxiety, fear, joy, and celebratory mood. And…”
She looked at me in amazement.
“Researchers say, the witchcraft rituals from Kerala produce consequences, even if you pretend to perform them just for fun,” I went on.
“For instance, a White researcher performed a ritual and for eight months believed himself to be a goat.”
“We do these rituals for fun but we gain real experience. The crowd that’s coming to Tanna is gathered by this promise.”
“How many are coming?”
“Don’t know. We all are supposed to meet in Tanna. Right now, this meeting is only a coincidence.”
“Do you think so!”
“Why do you ask?”
“I believe nothing in life is a coincidence.”
“So, what else do you believe in? Seems like there are a lot!”
She smiled and said nothing.
“Do you have parents?”
“I was born to a single parent. I lost contact with my mom when I was twelve.”
“No. Getting married is not in my plan.”
“Eva! Can I ask you something?”
“What do you really want?”
“How can I answer this question?”
“You can. Think and you can exactly tell what you want.”
“I want to put it this way,” she said. “I want to see logic or purpose in everything that happens around here. In my life and in the universe. Science taught me everything here is a coincidence. But I’ve got nothing to do with a life that’s made of coincidences. Nothing to rely on or dream about. All I can do is simply flow along. It makes my life meaningless. It makes my day boring and tiring.”
“So I go in the opposite direction. I want to believe. I try to renounce the superficial logic that Science offers. I think there is an inherent meaning and intrinsic order in everything. Everything here goes on according to a grand plan. I think we can learn a bit about that plan and fill in the rest with our imagination.”
She continued, “Wouldn’t the life we experience afterward be great? Everything becomes mysterious and meaningful. Everything has something hidden inside it for us. We’ll keep prodding and exploring. Such a world I want to live in. My grandmother lived in such a world. In a world of harmony and meaning. There was so much out there for her to believe, expect and perform. Hence she didn’t have my mother’s anxiety. She didn’t have to seek out drugs.”
“Your mother used drugs?”
“A lot. She’s probably dead by now. But it’s not her fault. The world she lived in made no sense or gave her no purpose. It was a crazy world made of coincidences.”
“Kafka’s, Camus’ and Sartre’s world. Virginia Woolf’s, Joyce’s, Faulkner’s…How many names! Saramago, Kobo Abe, Josh Vandeloo…All were deranged. Sartre was a fraud too. Interestingly, all across the world, an entire generation was designed by these sick people who themselves didn’t know how to live. They broke everything that man had created for centuries and set the world in a vacuum. If one has to make life exciting only by drugs, pass time in an eternal trance, is there such a more obscene state for man? This is what these morons have given this world.”
“I think you’re taking an extreme stand,” I said.
“Because I’m the victim,” she said. “I’m the daughter of a woman who dwelled in this crap they created and destroyed herself. That’s why I say an Alexander Dumas is equivalent to a thousand Kafkas.” Her turmoil subsided slowly.
“Today the world has crossed over that garbage. Only well-paid college professors study them. Youngsters of today don’t have any existential problems. They know lust and money can give them the best of experiences. Tens and thousands of fantasy and adventure fiction are written these days. The digital world is creating innumerable dreams. Mythology and ancient history provide inspiration for the imagination. There’s no room for Kafka’s mucus now. Poor fellow! He had tuberculosis. So he blew his mucus on the entire world.”
“Have you read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Kafka’s friend?”
“In it, he tells the story of someone who knew Kafka in person, who had no existential problem. It is the story of a man who overcame disasters and destruction through compassion, endurance, and struggle.”
“I’ve never read Singer. I don’t like Jewish writing. It spreads distrust of life and humanity.”
“Singer is a Tolstoy.”
“Is he? I’ll read him.”
“I didn’t expect that you’d speak much.”
“How intelligent and enlightened were the pioneers who created and offered to us these myths and images! Beyond that, how compassionate they were!”
She laughed suddenly. I looked at her.
“Aren’t literature, art, religion, and everything collectively a Cargo cult?”
I laughed. “You could put it that way.”
We couldn’t tell who among those who landed at the Wide Cross airport and stood at the emigration was from our cult. Many might have arrived earlier. It wasn’t an international airport and flights came directly from Australia. There was only one emigration counter.
Eva stood behind me. She looked like she’d just woken up from sleep. She said, “I’m sorry. I talked too much.”
“But that’s OK.”
“We’ve come here not to talk, right? The only reason we choose a new environment is to express ourselves in an entirely new context. Holding on to the past is pointless.”
“Eva, why are you here?”
“To become a completely new person. For a profound expression that arises from me without knowing myself. I’ve gone to Tibet; meditated in the monasteries; smoked mushrooms in Brazil, the same one smoked by Don Juan; lived among Massai tribes in Africa. I kept looking for unique experiences over and over again. Alright. What do you look for?”
“I…” I laughed. “I want someone to take me in their care. My responsibilities and worries should be taken care of by them. They should hold me in their hips like an infant.”
“Ha!” she laughed.
“I know it’d only be pretension. Pretension is the basic law of literature. In a way, these cults are kind of functioning novels. Instead of reading them, we become their characters.”
She nodded. “I think these are like time travels. During a flood, debris and ants gather together into a ball to float in the floodwaters. As soon as they hit a pole or stone, they would climb onto them and escape the flood. Some travel forward, some backward. The only aim is to get out of the mess.”
We came out.
“See you later,” I said.
She took leave of me. I went for a taxi booking.
The ritual surpassed my imagination. From the hotel room I was staying in, I sent a text message to the number I was given.
In the evening, two local tribal women came and picked me up. They had a code word to identify me.
They took me to a small hut inside the forest and enjoined me to take all my clothes. I stood completely naked while they painted all over my body with their bare hands. The many-colored paints were made of natural chemicals, wax, and herbs. I felt like I’d transformed into an animal when they painted me in stripes with arresting colors of purple, blue, red, and yellow.
They applied wax-like glue on my face and stuck on it a soft leather mask made of sheepskin. It had a strange grin on its face. The locks of hair laden with wax slid over my shoulder. They placed a crown made of bones on my head.
I totally disappeared into that disguise. Not an inch of my body was visible. “Do you have a mirror?”
“No. You shouldn’t look at yourself in the mirror.”
They wrapped and tightened a leather skirt around my waist. On my feet, they put a pair of sandals that looked like large horseshoes. I found one of them to be angled and shorter.
“They don’t fit!”
“It should be this way. Your style needs to change.”
“Drink this,” another said, handing me a glass of some liquid.
It smelled like country liquor. I screamed as soon as it got on my tongue. It burned like acid and scorched my tongue. My throat tightened and my breathing became labored.
“Gulp it! Gulp it!”
I swallowed it. It reached my stomach like a fireball and exploded into bubbles.
“What’s this?” I asked. My voice shocked me. It had changed completely.
“It’s only local liquor. It’ll change your voice. But you’ll get it back tomorrow,” said one of the women. “This is made from rice. Won’t harm you.”
I felt like I was floating. They led me through a trail with lush green trees on both sides.
I’d completely turned into someone else. I probably wouldn’t have felt that way had I looked in the mirror, as I would have extricated myself from that image if I had.
They brought me near the entrance of a large compound. “You can go now. We’re not allowed beyond this point.”
I went through the entrance that read JOHN THERE. Glowing blue-green pointers – our group’s secret identification – showed the way.
Rainforest trees formed a single roof of leaves above the forest. The trees stood with their raised barks and plumped-up branches. A pleasant breeze was rustling through the leaves.
Several men walked in patches, clad in tight underwear, and a crown made of bones sitting on their locks of hair. Women had a cloth around their chests and colored stripes all over their bodies. It was as if I myself had multiplied into many different forms.
That illusion helped lower my anxiety. My self-centeredness was gone the moment I took on that disguise but I was unable to create another self for myself. That’s why I’d been anxious. Now, when I joined the crowd I became one with it. Though at first it was dazzling to think that I am the crowd, I got used to it in a few minutes.
I joined the many who had already gathered in a small field at the center of the forest. No one spoke anything. But there was a noiseless conversation going on through gestures peculiar to our group. Elongated congas and huge drums with the diameter of a man’s height were brought. Some brought blowing horns. The crowd kept gathering.
The congas began to sound without a forewarning. The drums and horns joined them. At first it felt like an eruption of meaningless noise. But later I sensed an inner harmony in that music. Before anyone got the hang of the rhythm, the bodies started dancing. Through the dance everyone became a single movement, a single body. Suddenly, standing somewhere from a distant past, hiding, I felt myself looking at that scene.. Then my heart glowed. I’d already seen this scene somewhere. In a painting.
It was an oil painting by Charles. E. Gordon Frazer, a British Australian painter and traveler. Frazer came to New Zealand in 1885 and from there traveled to Tanna Island, then known as Hebrites, in 1887. On March twenty-eighth, the tribesmen took him to show the cannibal feast held by another tribe. He watched the entire ceremony, hiding behind a bush.
A group of half-naked tribesmen carried two people – one of them a woman -, their limbs tied to bamboo sticks, into the dense forest. They placed the wriggling, screaming, crying couple in the middle and circled around them, dancing to the rhythm of the drums. When the dance reached its frenzied peak, the couple were beaten to death. They tore their flesh, roasted it in the fire, and ate it. Two years later, in 1891, Frazer portrayed this scene in a painting that became world-famous.
In an article he wrote on the occasion of the 1895 Liverpool Art Exhibition, Frazer had described the moment in which he painted the scene. Three months earlier to this trip, we had been given a copy of the painting and his note. The ceremony took place in the forest beneath Mount Yasur Volcano.
I looked around. The night was dark. Above the trees, something was glowing red. I had fancied it to be some kind of torch. But it turned out to be the fire rising from the top of Mount Yasur Volcano in the distance.
The moment I realized that this forest was at the foot of the volcano, I figured that we’d gathered at the same place where the ceremony that Frazer portrayed in his painting took place. If someone looked at us from beyond, he’d imagine he was looking at Frazer’s painting. I felt a jolt again; one hundred twenty-five years had passed since Frazer witnessed the ceremony!
The rhythm of the drums escalated my heart’s excitement. My legs started to dance without my volition. My body went crazy beyond control in spite of my hesitation and fear while the frenzy slowly penetrated my mind. Horns trumpeted like elephants. Shrieks filled the air. The beat quickened. Four men brought a woman and a man in. They looked like us. I thought it’s us. I thought it was me.
The couple jumped up and screamed and cried and shook as if in a seizure. They were brought to the center of the crowd. Everyone stood around and started to perform the same dance that Frazer referred to in his note. The crowd threw obscene gestures at their prey, cursed them, spat on them, and threw dirt at them as they circled around. It seemed that only by demeaning them, could we achieve a mental state that turns them into animals and prey. In order to drive away the evil spirits that possessed them, the people cut tufts of the couple’s hair and blew them in the wind.
Far beyond, fire rose from coal-filled pits. With shouts and laughter, everyone approached the duo and started stripping them. Everyone knew what to do. Each of them pushed and pulled each other to get the couple naked. Having grown weary of screaming, and their throats dry, the prey trembled with tears, muscles quivering in their straps.
All torches went out abruptly, and the flames of the volcano rose over our heads into total darkness. Drums sounded like explosions. All horns clamored in unison. Everyone pounced on their prey, and, screaming, they started to beat the duo with sticks. Within a few minutes, the metallic smell of raw blood began to waft out.
I didn’t pounce on the prey at first, as my self-awareness caused me to tremble and stand still. But the smell of the freshly drawn blood shattered all my restraint. Passing through several frenetic bodies, I tore out raw flesh from the bodies of the couple that lay on the ground. The flesh with its raw blood quivered in my hand. Some ran toward the burning coal pits. Some chewed on the raw flesh.
I shoved my piece of raw flesh onto a stick and roasted it in the fire. Keeping it in my mouth, I danced. I chewed and swallowed it, spat it into the darkness. Laughing frantically I jumped up and down, throwing up my hands. Everyone around me was just as overwhelmed as I was.
I thought I tasted the woman’s meat. It must be hers. It must be. It was like a ghostly god had entered me. I jumped up as if on fire. I screamed at the dark sky, at the flames of the volcano, causing my throat to hurt.
The lights came on. Everyone screamed, laughed, and slapped each other. A woman next to me was dancing frantically. Around her neck, she wore a garland made of bones. Raw blood oozed out of her mouth. Her eyes were like red berries. Hundreds of hands flew around her. Her legs did not rest on the ground. Locks of her hair spun like snakes.
Suddenly the rhythm altered. The beat changed to a uniform hopping. All men ran towards women, howling. I hesitated for a moment, only a moment, while she, her arms spread out, pounced on me and took me in her hands as if I were a toy. I thought I knew those hands. Was it her? If so, who did I eat just now?
She led me into the dark. There we huddled together like two burning pieces of wire. We destroyed each other. Filled each other up. We were bitten by teeth, scratched by nails, kicked, kissed, cried, and laughed. We writhed like worms in dusty ash. We broke in anguish and pounced on each other once again. We got up and ran and chased and slapped and joined again. We acted as if there was no one else in the dark. As if the forest that surrounded us was our own world. The Volcano’s flower had risen above us in the sky.
At the Brisbane airport, I bought a glass of wine and sat in a tall chair. I wasn’t particularly focused on anything. All my energy had been drained out and my body felt like a pile of flesh. I was pushing myself to every further step. There were little wounds all over my body. I felt the pain of a slight dislocation in all my muscles.
Suddenly there was a slight movement ahead that caught my attention. It’s her! Her eyes caught mine too. Initially startled by my presence, she immediately turned her gaze away from me, then deciding it was not right to ignore it, she came over to me and said, “Hi.”.”
She had bloody sores on her cheeks, neck, and earlobes, and her lips looked distorted and swollen. She looked like she had escaped from a bloody battlefield or a silly accident. Sitting next to me, she asked, “Is your flight late?”
“It’s going to be a long journey. You can rest on the plane.”
“I feel like a corpse right now.”
“I must rise alive from this body again.”
I said nothing.
“I feel I’ve had a terrible nightmare. Had I never had these wounds, I wouldn’t have believed what really happened last night,” she said.
“Have we come here in search of a dream?”
“Only one thing bothers me,” she said. “That human flesh…it…”
“It must be some animal’s… Probably some meat made into human shape. Maybe chimpanzees’,” I said. “After the lights went out, the couple might have disappeared into the ground and these chimpanzees may have emerged.”
“How do you know?”
“Why else did they turn off the lights?”
“Right.” She seemed comforted by this.
“But it’s only my speculation.”
“Let it be so.” she smiled wanly.
“Moreover, this is just like the Cargo cult. It’s not really about doing. It’s about pretending.”
She smiled. “I have to ask you one more thing.”
I just looked.
“Was it you?”
She didn’t say anything.
“Did you feel that way?”
“It felt like it was you. It also didn’t.”
“It’s the same with me. But we can never confirm it.”
“So, do we have to talk about it? As soon as I say yes, you will think of reasons that it cannot be.”
I got up. “I think my flight announcement has been made.”
“Let’s catch up sometime,” she said.
“Do we have to?”
A few moments later she said, “No.”
B. Jeyamohan (b. 1962) is a Tamil writer and literary critic based in Nagercoil, India. One of India's finest authors writing today, he has traveled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, and his work examines and reinterprets India’s rich literary and classical traditions. His best-known, critically acclaimed novel, Vishnupuram (1997), is an epic fantasy that layers history, myth-making, and philosophy. His works of fiction include the novels: Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural (1999), Kaadu (2003), Kottravai (2005), and Vellai Yaanai (2013), and explore diverse themes ranging from ideological anguish following the collapse of Soviet Russia to the symbol of the mother goddess in Tamil cultural history to the great famine of Madras in 1876-78. A prolific writer, his output includes multiple novels, short stories, volumes of literary criticism, writer biographies, introductory texts to Indian and Western literature, books on philosophy, and numerous other translations and collections. He has completed his serialized retelling of the Indian epic Mahabharata called Venmurasu (The White Drum), consisting of twenty-six volumes. This is the longest novel in the world and certainly the longest in Tamil.