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The One Who is Memorious

I met him in the dining room of a hermitage I was visiting. He was mopping the floor as I was waiting alone for my lunch. Sun was blazing outside, letting know all beings of its ominous presence. From where I was sitting, I could see across the green meadows, until my eyes hit the dry shrubs and mountains beyond. From inside, it was a hermit’s retreat. From the outside, it was a group of stone caves.

The lush green campus with few stone cottages was perched atop a small hill, one of the countless hills and mountains that constitute the Sahyadri range in southwest India near the city of Pune. I came here once before.

Later I came to know his name as Shantaram. He remembered seeing me four months back taking photos of the place. This would have been totally fine until he ventured, “four minutes to ten on the thirteenth day of February.” I was amused, “How do you know?” But he was a stone-deaf idol, simply dressed in a khaki shirt and a bluish-grey trouser which started showing signs of wear. He continued mopping. His docile face was expressionless. Deep down, I knew it had to be unperturbed even in the event of a great storm.

Finishing my lunch, as I was about to leave, he said, “I just know.”

It was bizarre to have a response to a question asked long back. Nonetheless, I pretended not to be amused this time. I had only about an hour’s time in hand to explore this place before I had to drive back to the city.

My fascination with the place came long before I visited it. A cover of a best-selling book had a picture of a square concrete window jutting out amidst the rustic stone rubble masonry. It had a contemplative effect. When I read it, a few years back, it never occurred to me that I would visit this place one day in person. When I had the chance of visiting -it struck me, why don’t I spot the same window that was made into the cover of the book? The windows looked all the same, but they were different in the context of stones that were around them. I hoped to find my desired one soon.

Now, as I roamed around, I found myriad square concrete windows, projecting out of the bluish-green moss-covered stone wall. It was impossible to go through them all, matching them with the book cover to identify the desired one.

Exasperated and hopeless as I was about to leave, cursing my wild wish, I encountered him again. This time he was pruning plumeria plants at the courtyard. I couldn’t suppress my curiosity. I went up to him from his back. While approaching, I could hear him murmur. When he sensed me, he turned back and stopped watering.

Taking the book out of my sling bag, I showed him the cover. He nodded. He started without any prompt as if he knew what I was looking for, “Cottage No.13, southern face.”

One of the many cottages that adorns this campus in Pune

He continued, sensing my bewilderment, “I know all the stones, their arrangements, subtle texture, color, and smell. For you, it may look all the same. But I have given names to all of them. I know all the leaves of all trees here. I have regular chat with them.”

I felt his vivacious voice emanating from innermost dark crevices of consciousness. I remembered Vladimir Nabokov attuned it as oneness with sun and stone, before defying time[1]. Perhaps Shantaram also didn’t believe in time.

“How do you remember everything?” His face, I didn’t notice before, looked older than Mohenjo-Daro, the mound of the dead. He had a halo emanating from his face, or I imagined it to be. He paused. It seemed an eternity had passed before he responded, “I don’t only remember what I see, but I also remember every single time I imagine. I just keep it to myself.”

He requested me to follow, and I tailed him as if I was under a chant. I do not remember how long we walked. When he stopped, it broke the spell of hallucination. I realized dusk was setting in. I was standing in front of what looked like a clearing in a dense forest. What astonished me was what lied before – it appeared like an archaeological ruin- seven stepped layers of stone forming an ancient stepwell descending into fissures down. Surrounded by forest, it was yearning for discovery. [Déjà vu?] I transported to a memory of the past. I was attending a lecture by a scholar specializing in medieval memory. He showed a seven-stepped theatre of Giulio Camillo used for the art of memory[2]. The words of the scholar reverberated in my ears:

The Theatre presents a remarkable transformation of the art of memory. The rules of the art are clearly discernible in it. Here is a building divided into memory places… The mind and memory of man are now ‘divine’, having powers of grasping the highest reality through a magically activated imagination. The Hermetic Art of memory has become the instrument in the formation of a Magus; the imaginative means through which the divine microcosm can reflect on the divine macrocosm can grasp its meaning from ‘bottom’. The art of memory had become an occult art, a Hermetic secret. Humankind now has lost the key to it.

The scholar, I remembered, argued that there was no evidence of such theatre’s existence.

But witnessing the stepwell in front of me, I was bamboozled. I looked at Shantaram – who I now feared, can read my mind. He broke the silence first, “Yes, this is what you think”, confirming my anxiety. “What are you doing in the hermitage?” I asked. “Who are you?”

I realized these words did not come from my lips. I was speaking through my mind. I received a strange response in the same way, “I think, mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind. This hermitage is the place where there is no mirror and hermits perform celibacy.”[3]

I was about to ask him more, but I stopped. I felt there was a lump forming in my throat. It was intolerable. The infinite solitude was enveloping me. Sweats were coming down my temple. Like camphor, Shantaram was gradually evaporating before me. I felt the earth was slipping away and it was pulling me down.

I opened my eyes in a local health clinic. I heard from the nurse, that I was found by a group of local woodcutters in a dense forest, with nobody around. I wasn’t surprised. The presence of Shantaram was overwhelming for me. I needed the soothing touches of time to recover, not only physically, but mentally as well.

In monsoon, I visited the hermitage one last time before leaving the city. I was alone, looking at the bust of a woman standing amidst the lush greeneries with lots of plumeria blooming this time. I spotted groves of jasmine nearby.

Then, I heard the voice booming from behind. “Sir, you have come back.” There was no need to turn. 

I was prepared this time, “You need to drink the water of forgetfulness from river Lethe[4]. You must know where to find it”. He stopped for a moment to comprehend, “You are right sir. My memory is like a garbage heap.”[5] He couldn’t have spoken a truer word. I inferred he could not lie or deceive. It must bring unbearable agony to him.

I identified him as Homer, the ancient bard, father of all poets[6]. Thousands of bohemian rhapsodes formed his epics. He was a vase for all strands of memories. Nature and its creatures had confessed the ancient sacred truth to his ear. He takes many forms to communicate. Our kinds have grown too fast, in numbers as well as devising fatal plans positing an irreversible threat to natural world order.

Drinking from Lethe would wake him up from his slumber. The world needs to hear him one last time before he falls asleep.

[1] (Nabokov and Boyd 1999, 139)

[2] (Latto 1991). Memory theatre of Giulio Camillo was a sixteenth century project which was conceived as an instrument to improve memory. The seven-tiered theatre opens up into seven boxes in each tier, totalling into forty-nine chambers. The idea was to walk through them and contain memory in these chambers. When orators, would deliver speeches, they would revisit these places to bring out fragments of their speech. Scholars such as Frances Yates, in Art of Memory associated it with the hermetic tradition of Marsilio Ficino and his student Pico Della Mirandola. Before the age of printing, it was art of rhetoric, which orators and scholars rigorously practiced and memory formed an integral part of the tradition. Jeff Letto argues the memory theatre a model prepared to comprehend the order of the cosmos. The seven is a symbolic number as seven colors of light.

[3] I take this notion of mirror and copulation from Jorge Louis Borges’ short story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. See (Borges 2007) for the full story.

[4] Ivan Illich says water is a shifting metaphor for mirror. It reveals and hides at the same time. See (Illich 1985, 25). River Lethe is one of the four great mythological river of Greek epics. Drinking its water is supposed to make oneself oblivious. The word Lethe literally means oblivion.

[5] Meticulous memory can be a pain was iterated by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story Funes the Memorious. See (Borges 2007).

[6] Eighteenth century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico in his book The New Science speaks extensively on Homer and poietic wisdoms of humankinds. Particularly the frontispiece of The New Science, where divine lights illuminates Homer reflecting from the metaphysics was important in forming identity of Shantaram.

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