Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013, Featured Writer Amit Shankar Saha

Story of Nan Phu

The story of Nan Phu is not a story. That is to say, it is not fiction. It is real because many people, who are euphemistically called children, believe in it. Is it not what we believe to be real that is real for us? And frankly there is no other criterion to test the reality. 

So this story, which is not a story but reality, is about a boy called Nan Phu, who lived in the village of Bumboret a long time ago. He belonged to the Kalash tribe who populated the Chitral Mountains since time immemorial and they are known for their megalithic stone circles and ibex horn carvings. We all know, and children believe, that there were once ancient times when charms and magic and sorcery and witchcraft prevailed. The people of the Kalash tribe, since they retained the customs, traditions and lifestyle of ancient times, possessed the knowledge the advancement of civilisation made scarce, if not extinct, in other people. As part of this tribe Nan Phu was in possession of such esoteric knowledge. 

In fact it was not knowledge but a box. Inside the box was a gate. Inside the gate was a world. Inside that world was another Bumboret village. And inside that village was another Nan Phu. This other Nan Phu also had a box, which had a gate that led back to this Nan Phu’s world. The only difference between the world outside the box and the world inside the box was that there was magic still prevailing in the world inside the box. And Nan Phu, not only the one inside the box but also the one outside the box, knew this. 

It was a time when the British officer Alexander Burnes was tracing the footsteps of his illustrious namesake, Alexander the Great, in search of the famous altars of the Macedonian monarch. Alexander Burnes had a contingent of British officers with him, many with families waiting for them in Calcutta, the British administrative centre of India. For some days the men camped at Rumbur and in this time, one by one, the officers from Calcutta received news of the deaths of their children. The tropical climate of Gangetic Bengal played with the lives of British young ones, who lacked the immunity to withstand the onslaught of cholera and malaria. 

In their imperialist zeal, the ambitious British officers had crossed the high seas and reached the land called India. But their colonial project did not find favour with the Druids and the Picts and the Elves and the Gnomes and the Goblins who for ages had protected the British children and provided them immunity from the scourge of diseases. Thus, in Calcutta, the unguarded children of the British officers became the victims of their fathers’ thoughtless ambition. 

When all the officers accompanying Alexander Burnes went into mourning and he was left alone, he went on a walking tour of the vicinity of Rumbur. That was how he came to Bumboret and met Nan Phu. Though they did not speak with each other, since each one’s language was alien to the other, Nan Phu could read Burnes’s mind. Nan Phu, who still retained the remnants of magic from ancient times, could see through the eyes of Burnes the graves in Calcutta where the dead English children writhed and where the yet-to-be-born pleaded futilely with the Druids and the Picts and the Elves and the Gnomes and the Goblins for protection. It was then that Nan Phu decided to help the children. What was the use of the magic – or at least a box that held the gateway into a magical world – if not to do good to others? 

It was a cloudy day when Nan Phu entered the gate inside the box. But he did not know that the clouds forebode a warning. So when he reached the other world, the world where charms and magic and sorcery and witchcraft still prevailed, he found it raining. The Indus thundered treacherously and anyone who was not a master of magic could well be carried away by the raging river. Nan Phu had unwittingly risked his life and his condition was precarious. He was wet in the rain and the flooded river’s current pulled at his feet. Luckily the other Nan Phu, the one of the magical world, had an intuition of his arrival and was ready to meet and protect his counterpart from the other world. Just as the rolling stones gave way beneath Nan Phu’s feet, a hand clutched his hand. They met – the two Nan Phus.

Instantly, to the surprise of the newly arrived Nan Phu, the rain stopped and the river sank back to its original level. Clouds dispersed. The sun came up. Seeing the quizzical look on the face of his counterpart, the Nan Phu of the magical world said: “The purpose of the river’s flooding was to put your life in peril and probably drown you. But since I have saved you, nature has abandoned its pursuit. That is how things happen in this world. You should have noticed the omen of the clouds before entering the box.

“Oh!” The speaker continued, “I am Nan Phu of this world. Call me ‘Phu’ because that is the name given to us by the magical world. I will call you ‘Nan’ because that is the name given to us by the world where magic has faded.”
In response Nan could only say, “Phu.”

Soon Nan recovered from the shock of his brush with death. He liked Phu, whom he had always wanted to meet. He told him the purpose of his visit. Phu became pensive.
After a while Phu spoke. “You will have to travel to Ganok. To the Factory of Potions. That is where you will get the cure for the diseases that afflict the British children in Calcutta.”
Nan said excitedly, “Then I’ll go there this very moment. I have heard of the village of Ganok in my world and I will find my way there. Will you accompany me?”
“Sure, I’ll go with you. But it is a long journey. We will have to halt at Olthingthang. My pet ibex will guide us.”

Nan could not help but believe that Phu had a pet ibex. It seemed incredulous to him until he saw the creature with his own eyes, obediently following Phu’s commands.
After a while both Nan and Phu were on their way to Olthingthang, following Phu’s ibex. For Nan, this world was same as the world he had left behind, except he had an uncanny feeling that magic lurked in every cranny. When they reached Olthingthang, Nan found that despite walking a long time, he strangely felt no tiredness. He wanted to continue the journey. But Phu warned that even though the people do not feel any tiredness in the world of magic, the body’s muscles do become worn and so the boys must rest and eat something. The people in Olthingthang were just as the people Nan would have encountered in his own world, except for the many stares they received due to the two boys’ identical looks.

After a while, the two boys returned to walking, following the ibex. They crossed the turbulent river Tui and reached Ganok. It was then that Nan noticed the difference. The megalithic stone circles, which in his world were in ruins, were not so in this world. In Ganok the stone circle stood in full grandeur and inside it was the Factory of Potions.

As they neared the factory they had to jostle through the crowd to reach the stone gate. There were queues to enter. Soon they became a part of the sinuous line of people proceeding towards the gate. There were all sorts of people – some looked ordinary, some extraordinary. There were jugglers and conjurers; some wore coats and some wore rags; some were talking and some were silent; some made faces and some stood expressionless; some were white and some were black; and some were lookalikes like the boys. Once inside the gate the crowd dispersed. Though the Factory of Potions did not look like a big building capable of housing very many people, it appeared that people vanished once they entered the building. An old woman who was in the queue just ahead of the boys was nowhere to be found once she had entered the building.

At the reception desk Nan and Phu spoke to the receptionist, a woman in a suit, who directed them into an antechamber, where a group of men and women sat around a long table. They were clearly very important as was evident from their looks.

Phu spoke first and explained the purpose of the boys’ visit. Then Nan gave a description of the deplorable condition of the British children living in Calcutta. The men and women who mattered looked glum. A voice at the far end of the table rose and explained that they have already allotted the sought after cures to somebody. So it was not possible to re-allot the same. Nan lowered his eyelids and the curve of his lips arched. Phu said, “Isn’t there any other remedy?”

The voice at the other end spoke again, “I am afraid, no. In course of time the remedies will come to the world where magic has faded through the discoveries of Fleming, Ross and others. That is how knowledge is dispersed in that world of lost magic.”
Nan exclaimed “In course of time! Not immediately!”
“The cures have been made available to scientists but it will take years to recreate them in the non-magical world.”

Nan was at a loss for words. Phu was in thought. It was Phu who suggested, “What if Nan promises to deliver the cures immediately on reaching his world? Will that not expedite the delivery mechanism and save lives of children? I know that the council works by age-old rules but it is the exception that makes the rule. So why not make that exception now.”

The heads around the table entered into a consultation among themselves. And after a lengthy deliberation the voice at the end of the table rose again: “We have decided to give you the immunity potion instead if you promise to deliver it immediately to the needy on reaching your world.”
Nan’s face widened with a smile.

When Nan and Phu came out of the megalithic stone circle, they looked back and saw the Factory of Potions dissolving into thin air. Phu explained to the confused Nan that the Factory of Potions has exhausted its purpose serving them and so it need not exist anymore. That it how things work in the land of charms and magic and sorcery and witchcraft. Then, following the ibex, the two boys retraced their path back to Bumboret. They had the immunity potion with them.

Nan thanked Phu before he entered Phu’s box and passed through the gate inside. He came back to his own world and was surprised to find that everything was just as when he had left. The clouds were still there but immediately cleared. It seemed that while he was in that other world time had stood still here. But he had no time to keep thinking it over because he had to reach Calcutta as soon as possible.

Nan Phu’s journey from Bumboret to Calcutta is the stuff of legends. Although on returning to his village, he had written it down, but the old Kalash language became extinct and the story became undecipherable. In course of time many pages of the manuscript were destroyed in the turmoil of history. What little remained extant were interpreted by the eminent Dr. Rama, Dr. Gama and Dr. Dgama variously.

Through oral tradition it is known, and the children believe, that Nan Phu did come to Calcutta, crossing the passes at Skardu and journeying through Deoli, Shamli, Dehra, and Naini to Brahmganj to Berhampore to Barrackpore and finally to Calcutta. A Bengali folklore about Nondor Ma, whose medicinal potions cured many white children in Calcutta when the Western doctors failed to bring them relief, mentions the name of Nan Phu.

Perhaps Nondor Ma was the same old woman who stood in the queue ahead of Nan Phu in the Factory of Potions. It was through her that it is known that a boy had come from the northwest who sowed the immunity potion in the soil of Calcutta, mixed it in the waters of the Hooghly, blew it in the air of the city, and even hid it in books in the libraries. The white children gradually stopped dying, and the Druids and the Picts and the Elves and the Gnomes and the Goblins were all very happy and thankful to Nan Phu for what he had done. And all the white children of that time were happy and thankful to Nan Phu for bringing the potion of immunity into the land of tropical diseases and saving their lives.

And this is in short the story of Nan Phu.
Or in fact, this is not the story but the reality of Nan Phu – for many people, who are euphemistically called children, still believe that he existed.

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