Elias had swapped his wild dreams for a box of pills. He told me so when we were crouched on the pavement outside the Police Headquarters in Delhi, beside the makeshift coal fire the imams had left. There had been another call to gather, to oppose the detention of our comrades who had, like us, been protesting a new, evil law that made all Indian Muslim people’s citizenship suspect.
Elias had come down from Berlin for research and landed right into this charged, curfewed whirlwind of political rupture. He joined me on my missions as one of the foot soldiers fighting fascism in the capital – demonstrations at India Gate; getting protestors out of Seelampur Police Station; medical camp and biryani at Shaheen Bagh. It just so happened that a masjid shares a wall with the Delhi Police Headquarters and the imams from within had opened the gates to let us protestors rest or use the loo. They’d made a fire to arm us against the hollowing December cold, and brought over a massive steel container of tea so that that night was the most comfortable one in our Winter of Resistance.
That night, Elias and I were caught in the air intoxicated with heady sentiments of freedom, resilience, and uncertainty. A little ways away from the cluster of sloganeers and speech-makers, he drank in the coal fire with his eyes. His white face was warm with light, but languid, dreamless, and sorrowful.
“It’s some sort of divine allegory, huh? The Headquarters and the masjid sharing a wall,” I remarked, trying to snap him out of his reverie, “one stretch of land, housing both the fascists and their targets.” But he hardly moved. When I asked what was wrong, he remembered to down the pills with his paper cup full of tea.
He hesitated to talk about himself. Enmeshed as we were in a human knot singing verses of justice, and expected as we were to respond to every call of “Aawaaz do!” (Lend your voice!) with “Hum ek hai!” (We are one!) – anything he wanted to say would have had to be punctuated by waves of the zeitgeist.
We nestled snugly against the steel barricades on the pavement separating us from the police. Regal varieties of trees, native to the elegant and elite centre of the capital, sent bulbs of flowers to litter the road. Still-vivid yellow amaltas, longing and infernal red gulmohars, and wilting lavender jacarandas painted an earthy mosaic against the tar, which was always freshly laid in this part of town. I wondered if the police hated the flowers too; if they’d beat them the same as they beat the folks on the street, given the command.
I dug my chin into my backpack to listen to him. It was the second week of country-wide protests, and my backpack had accompanied me to every site like a turtle’s shell. Most places could be lived in as long as I had my night pajamas, toilet roll, and the illusion of belonging, hanging from my back. Elias gathered the courage to respond and told me the story of how he lost his mind.
“I … I’ve been hurt for as long as I can remember. There was my parents’ divorce two years ago – an ugly one – and the shooting in Hanau. Bad images stuck to my dreams … They turned into jittery, panicked enigmas – people dying, people hurting, and I, running or trying to save somebody from pain …” He was narrating rapidly. I had to ask him to catch his breath.
“A few months ago, I decided to get better. I stopped bottling things up; talked my heart out to a couple of friends; I even saw a doctor. I hung up my secret tears to dry. I took to smoking pot to let the pain … dissipate.’’ He looped his right hand, spanning the air and mimicking smoke-rings.
“The worry lessened over the last few months. Focusing on it helped. My dreams then turned into expansive, wispy nothings, floating in orange light. In one recurring dream, I’d be swept up to a higher, ethereal plane and wander around this marble monument in the clouds. The dream always ended with some truth being spoken; cold grey tendrils of voices coming towards me from the pillars. It instructed me to repeat it. Then it would become many voices, all echoing through the corridors, and then jumping from the archway onto the clouds. Along with them, I’d fall through the clouds, at peace, until I remembered I had to broadcast the ‘truth’ to everybody.”
“What did the voice say? What was ‘the truth?’” I asked.
“It didn’t matter in the dreams. It was a feeling. But it was so real and so inspiring, something game-changing, something… transcendental.”
“And what did you after your enlightenment, oh wise one?” I teased him.
Smirking sadly in the style of a loveable bard, his hand over his swelling chest, he delivered: “I let the wilderness of my dreams creep in and grow over my waking mind.”
In the way he returned to recounting, I got the sense that he had grappled with this telling before. He went on, “I started taking my dreams seriously. As if my orange light and vague feelings of universal love could carry into the world, and make its bad dreams go away.”
“I started out feeling I’d turn some of them into papers, but soon the idea-jotting was all I was doing, getting sparks of inspiration from the ether, twisting and turning them in my brain, and jotting them down. I became especially conscious of the links between different schools of thought.
“The commandment filled me with jitters in my waking time, and I was consumed with locating the truth. To feel as I did in the dream. I scoured people for it, strangers more than friends. Anybody who’d humour me. I searched my Socrates, Kant and Marx, until I was so exhausted and taking so seriously all their problems and scepticism, that no one could ask me to eat or sleep. I finally needed the Taoist theory of non-action to tell me to chill – that even if I didn’t find the truth, the river of life would go on, and I could lay my head back in it and rest.”
He tore his paper cup to bits and let them fall to the asphalt. “I was seeing maddening similarities everywhere,” he said, his voice heavy as rain clouds. I’d never heard anybody as personally afflicted by Chinese philosophy.
“At one point,” he continued, “I became obsessed with folk stories as the basis of all knowledge. I would chart out hundreds of myths and fables from across the continents – with lines and dots and arrows and doodles on sheet upon sheet of paper – just to get them out of my head. The drive to create and get the words down swallowed me down to my ankles. I became a recluse. My mind would race from the moment I woke up, thinking like a revving motorbike, lost in universal patterns of music, and philosophy, and word origins. My sense of time of that period is all topsy-turvy.”
I was missing something. I didn’t understand his anguish. I just let him go on.
“What did you find in the folktales?” I asked.
“Three versions of the girl who had the top of her head chopped off to be able to speak. Eight tales of misunderstood giants. Twenty-three of God appearing in animal form to teach humanity a lesson in humility. And so on.”
“Must’ve taken ages.”
“Who knows how long it’s been since I got swept away. All I know is that in the process, I became a madman. Floating over the obsessions and the epiphanies were my mum and friends, worried sick for me. I’d mix up word roots and spring them on people who had no context. I recently opened my texts with another friend from that time – I’d asked her if she wanted to ‘go for vintage’ when I meant to ask if she wanted to go out for wine. The word ‘vintage’ comes from harvesting grapes, you see. She sent me a picture of herself in an old skirt. She still doesn’t know what I meant – and back then, I didn’t know what she meant.
“So distant from reality, and yet I was convinced I was let into a secret club, which held the likes of Bob Dylan and Virginia Woolf. The ones who had seen what life was really all about and had to utter it or be crushed by its weight! I could tell, speaking with people, that they thought I was going nuts. But I didn’t care so much – because I knew the ‘truth’ that so few others did – and those who didn’t were hopeless. Then, I was so sure, but now, I no longer know the ‘truth’. I don’t know if there ever was any, or if it was, as my doctor said, delirium. A spike in the damning mood graph of manic-depression. I don’t trust myself one bit, anymore, after I lied to myself so feverishly about everything.”
Elias held out his hands against his knees, cupped up to heaven as if asking it to accept him as an outcast of this earth. In his shivering hands, he grabbed all his grief, his shame and nausea at himself, and buried his face. His forehead was overrun with lines of worry. In that atmosphere of defiance and togetherness and liberation, Elias was the saddest soul on the block. Even the prisoners locked up inside must’ve been happier than him, hearing the procession out to free them. Against the olive green and white dome of the masjid across the barricade, he looked like the perfect symbol of divine repentance, dripping in guilt merely for being warped in his mysterious mind.
As he went on sobbing softly, the gates of the masjid opened.
The imams were back with another round of refreshments. Several burly men in long kurtas and beards came round with more tea and rusk and, joined by helpers from the crowd, went about distributing it and chatting with the protesters, interrupting our sombre moment.
One of the imams, gentle-looking with whiskers that made him appear like an erudite mouse, greeted us.
“Salaam walekum,” he bowed.
“Waalekum salaam,” we bowed back.
He introduced himself simply as ‘Chaacha’, uncle, and asked us where we were from. I had to translate for Elias. “This is Elias – he’s come down from Germany to keep us from allowing another holocaust.”
The imam’s face was stunned into disbelief, but not at my risqué joke. He lowered his face and looked right into Elias’s eyes, his own growing deeper as if peering through a looking glass at the Milky Way, seeing his tiny place in it, and then the stars and planets all together again. He exclaimed, “Illiyaaz beta! Masha’allah, masha’allah!”
He kissed both sides of a bemused Elias’s face before hugging him. Worried for Chaacha, another imam came our way. Presenting his flat palms to us, he explained, “You’ll have to forgive Chaacha; he lost his son Illiyaaz in a fake encounter in Kashmir two years ago. He hasn’t been the same since …” Holding Chaacha by the shoulders, he gently heeded him, “Chaacha, this is not Illiyaaz…”
“Oh, durr fitteh mooh!” the lively Chaacha retorted, slapping him on the back. “I know it is not him. But they are one and the same!” he said, pointing at Elias, “Just ask him his name!”
Chaacha’s patron eased up a little on hearing his name.
“See, it’s a miracle! One of God’s many quirks brings you to us.”
Elias looked sceptical and corrected him: “This is a very sweet story, and I am very sorry for your loss, but I must tell you that I don’t believe in God.”
“Oh, of course, you don’t! Free young minds, all of you. Illiyaaz was, too. But you know what your name means, don’t you, son?”
“Oh yeah, yeah, it means … Jehovah is god, right?”
“Yes. The Greek form of the Hebrew, ‘Elijah’… same as the Urdu Illiyaaz – meaning,” he said with his arms raised in a wide embrace to the air, “‘the Lord is My God’! Like him, you are a child of God. Don’t worry, now, your being here is enough. I won’t throw you into the fire for not believing!” he broke out chuckling.
“Oh, not like Abram’s brother, then,” said Elias, popping back to life.
The joke was lost on me, even as I conveyed it, but not on the imam, who said, “Aahahah, yes, Ibrahim’s brother! For an atheist, you are very knowledgeable, son. You speak Hebrew, Elijah?”
“A little bit, yes. My granddad makes me.”
“It’s just like Arabic. The script runs from right to left, too. But what the Arabs use for ordinary words, the Jews turn into slang!”
“True! Did you know English also ran right to left? Back when it was written on runes, in the ancient Germanic script?”
“Yes, yes, all the Nordic languages, before being adopted by Latin in the first few centuries after Isai, whom you call Jesus.”
“Oh, it’s so nice to run into you!” Elias exclaimed. “I was just telling my friend how crazy I feel with all these links floating in my head. Like some sort of monster.”
“Oh, but son, you know where the word ‘monster’ comes from, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes… from the Latin monstrare. Like demonstrate.”
“Aye, you see, in the olden days before hospitals and surgeries, when a baby was born with eleven fingers or two heads, it was heralded as a good omen. Sign of a better harvest, or the safe return of a loved one. Their parents would demonstrate the child to everybody so they could find out just what it brought. Those babies were the first monsters. Like everybody else who demonstrates something unknown to the world. Like all your wonderful friends here. Allah bless the monsters!”
He erupted into another peal of lofty laughter, joined by some of those around who had heard him. Elias’s eyes, which had been sobbing a moment ago, nearly shed another tear, but the crinkles arising from his mouth and closing around his eyes betrayed it would be a different kind of tear. They, too, looked as if they had peered through the looking glass to find their place in the cosmos.
The two continued these threads of stories so fervently – each lighting up upon hearing the other’s response, rapt in the wonder of cultural commonalities and dialect variations, and rushing to ride atop the other’s train of thought – that it was hard for me to keep up. Chaacha took us through the courtyard of the mosque and had us seated on the charpai.
Now at ease with his new friend, Elias asked him, “Chaacha, do you not feel insane being so concerned with far-away and far-gone things, while the world churns so madly on?” He adjusted slightly to sit cross-legged, which he wasn’t used to.
“Insanity, ooph! What a murmur it makes on your tongue. Do you feel insane, beta?”
“Not right now, not so much, here with you.” He looked towards Chaacha with sober, warm eyes, his troubles now gone wherever the lines of his face had travelled to.
“Insanity, then, must be a matter of who’s listening.”
Elias smiled, more to himself than us, and the two went on discussing the underlying messages of love, charity, and transcendence in long-surviving symbols, old and new characters of legends, and morals of a million meanings – all true, long into the night.