The Blue Mug




Chennai, INDIA Vishwanathan waited for the school bell to ring.  He was a prodigy. He had become bored of maths and sciences because he had read the lessons multiple times. He had finished the syllabus, even before the classes began.  The bell finally rang, and all of them stood in a line to recite the school prayer. Vishwa entered the classroom disinterestedly. When he saw that the first period was english prose, his mood perked up a little. He rather liked Lakshmi, his english teacher. She had a way of making stories in the textbooks come alive.  The kids had the ‘Eygptian Pyramids’ lesson opened in their textbooks. Lakshmi had a dulcet voice. She began reading the first para. “The Pyramid of Khufu is the largest Egyptian pyramid. It is the only one of the Seven wonders of the ancient world still in existence; this is despite being the oldest wonder by about 2,000 years.” Lakshmi shut the book and signaled the kids to do the same. She got up from her chair, came to the front of the classroom, leaned back on the desk, and spoke straight to the kids. “Eygpt is a mysterious, fascinating place, situated on the banks of river Nile. The pyramids, which are huge enigmatic structures, were found in the Al-Giza desert. The Egyptians mummified their dead. Basically, mummification means  .....” Vishwa forgot his boredom. He ignored the classroom and the school. His imagination used the wings of Lakshmi’s words to fly into Eygpt. Or rather, the Eygpt conjured up in his mind by the teacher’s words. *** At home, Vishwa took the textbook out reverently and read and re-read every word of the lesson. He was not satisfied. He wanted to know more. That's when he remembered the giant, voluminous encyclopedias in his friend’s house.  He was soon pouring over the pages about Eygpt.  He read late into the night, not moving from the table. “Scarabs, Sarcophagus, Tutankhamun, Osiris, Ra, Anubis, Neferteti” his lips murmured. He loved the new, unheard-of sounds they made, especially the name Nefertiti. He opened the encyclopedia and searched for the alphabet N. He was soon reading more and more about the queen. He fell into the bed much later than his bedtime. He closed his eyes sluggishly and visualized himself in Giza traveling towards the pyramids. As he went closer and closer, they grew taller and taller.  Next, he imagined how Queen Nefertiti would look. The pictures he had seen in the encyclopedia floated into his mind, and he promptly fell in love with her as passionately as only a schoolboy could. He finally slept with a sweet smile on his lips, thinking about Lakshmi teacher and how she had ignited his passion for Eygpt and queen Nefertiti. *** Vishwa was in the Xth std. But instead of studying for his board exams, he was poring over some Hieroglyphics.  His mom hovered behind him.  “Don't you have a maths exam tomorrow?” “Finished my revision. I guarantee that I can definitely get more than 95. Mostly it will be centum”. Vishwa replied without even looking up. “Amma, you don't have to worry about me. I will top the class.” He said without any trace of conceit in his voice. His mom glanced back at him as she left and saw that he was immersed in ‘The Riddle of the Rosetta.’  *** Vishwa’s dad was screaming at him, holding a file stuffed with email copies of admission documents in his hand, while Vishwa stood with his head bowed. “You have got admission into MS prog of Georgia Tech. Like all your classmates, why can't you happily take that up? If you join the college in the USA, your life will be made: A well-paying job in the Bay area, marriage, a Condo. If you like, you can even do your Ph.D. But, No! You don't want any of that. Instead, you want to give it all up and do a master’s degree in archeology, a subject with no prospects? At some God-forsaken university?“  He thrust the documents into Vishwa’s face. “I am not going to spend one paise on this education.” Vishwa put in mildly, “ Appa, Durham University in the UK, is the best college for archeology, and I have received full funding.” His dad howled at him, “You dare to back answer me? Just because you are a topper doesn't mean you can be insolent.” He left the room after hurling the dossier into the ground. *** His mom placed a delicate hand on Vishwa’s shoulders.  He looked up at her with eyes brimming with tears. “Amma, why can't he understand my fascination? My dedication? After all, I finished my engineering degree just to please him. Now I want to pursue my passion for archeology and Eygpt. I may not end up very rich. I may not buy a huge mansion. But I will be doing something that has obsessed me from childhood. I will be happy living my childhood dream. Doesn’t that count for something?” His mom squared her slender shoulders, took his face into her palms, and said, “Yes. It counts. I will somehow convince your dad. You follow your heart, Kanna. I will support you even if it means I have to fight your dad for it.” *** Cambridge UNITED KINGDOM As he was known now, Nathan had completed his Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Cambridge and learned to speak the ancient Egyptian language, just for the fun of it. He had been dabbling around with translation jobs. But of late, he had become restless and was keen to join an Eygpt excavation site. Both his parents had passed away, breaking all his ties with India. His dad had carried the notion that Vishwa’s love for Egyptology was his Deliria, ruining his life completely. But for that all-consuming passion, he could have had a normal life with a wife and kids. His biggest grouse was that Vishwa could not give them a continuity to their lineage because his infatuation with Eygpt stopped him from marrying.  *** Nathan walked along the lanes enjoying the breeze from River Thames. It was a beautiful evening with frivolous white clouds flitting about the beryl blue sky.  He was meeting Monika at a cafe nearby. Even though they had known each other for a few years, today was their first meeting in person. Monica Ikram was the world’s most renowned Egyptologist. Currently, she was the dig director at the Egyptian Antiquities service.  Nathan and Monika had exchanged emails and interacted about the subject that fascinated them: Archeology and Egyptology.  He had told her about his beloved Lakshmi teacher and how he owed her his passion and career. Nathan had also talked to her about his dad’s opposition and his mom’s support for Egyptology. He had confessed to her, diffidently, about his childish infatuation with Queen Nefertiti. Monika was in UK in connection with her work. Satellite images had revealed the whereabouts of a well-preserved city buried under the desert sands.  She was looking for a grant from one of the European universities to help her excavate the site.  Nathan had reached the cafe situated in front of a lake. Ducks were floating lazily in the still waters. He saw that Monika was already seated at a table. Monica was in her early fifties.  Dark olive-colored skin added to her mystic aura. There was a vitality and restrained passion in her demeanor that was electric. Her tortoiseshell glasses added to her scholarly look.  After initial pleasantries, Monika breathlessly began talking about the latest find at Luxor. Her voice was charged with excitement. “King Amenhotep 111  built this royal city, at Thebes 3400 years back.  It was a golden period of peace and prosperity in Egyptian history. This era was marked by extraordinary wealth, power, and luxury. Industries and technology were already developing. For the first time in history, there were thoughts about religion. The Egyptian gods were many in that period, and the people followed polytheism.” The waiter came to their table, stood for a while, and went back after being ignored by both of them. “But the son of Amenhotep 111, Amenhotep 1V, defied tradition by establishing a new religion that believed that there is but one god; the sun god Aten. The country went from polytheism to monotheism. He even changed his name to Akhenaten to celebrate the sun god Aten. He is listed as ‘the enemy’ in history. He is referred to as a criminal and troublemaker. ” Monika paused enough to order some drinks. Nathan asked her in a quiet voice, “Wasn’t Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s wife?” Monika gave him a naughty smile and continued, “Yes, you are right. Nefertiti s supposed to have had a role in what happened too. Also, for some unknown reasons, the royal couple shifted their capital from Thebes and moved away from the beautiful, thriving royal city. They built a new capital called Amarna. For some mysterious reason, there is no information about that part of the history.” She took a sip of the drink which the waiter had placed before her, paused for effect, and announced, “I am hoping that excavation of this ‘lost golden city’ will help us fill that gap. There may be clues buried within the city explaining why it was abandoned.” Nathan was carried on the wave of excitement Monika had created. He thought it was the right time to ask her for a job at the site.  He looked up at her hesitantly and said, “Monika, I was thinking....” She stopped sipping, put her hand up, and said, “Nathan, you are hired. You are my assistant excavation Director, conditional to my getting the funding.” As Nathan spluttered his thanks, Monika continued, “I had already decided to hire you when we arranged to meet. I have been impressed with your knowledge and enthusiasm for Egyptology. You also qualify for the post. So no need to thank me. We will wait and see if I get the requisite funding.” Both of them ordered and ate their food quietly, busy in their thoughts. After the waiter cleared the table away, Monika riffled through her handbag, retrieved a gift-wrapped packet, and put it in front of him.  He looked at her questioningly while she continued smiling at him naughtily. With mounting excitement, he extricated the bubble-wrapped packet and patiently uncovered it. A beautiful ceramic mug, the color of byzantine blue, emerged from it.  It had the magnificent face of Queen Nefertiti etched on it in deep red. He picked it up and held it reverently between his hands. His index finger traced the slight indent of Nefertiti’s face lovingly. His eyes and lips smiled with pleasure.  “I will treasure this gift with all my heart. This mug is the only gift I have ever received from outside my family. The choice of the present shows how well you know me. I appreciate this so much. I will never part with this mug, even for a day. Thank you.” His voice went slightly hoarse with emotion. They continued to speak for a long time. About ancient Egypt and archeology. About their present work and aspirations. About their childhood and future. They moved from the restaurant to a bench on the lakefront. The evening melted into a blaze of red sunset and then blinked into dusky darkness. The ducks floated out of the lake and waddled back home. The stars surreptitiously appeared in the sky.  But Nathan and Monika were in their own private world and hardly noticed. Luxor, EYGPT The city of modern Luxor is situated on the West Bank of the River Nile, about five hundred km from Cairo. This was the location where the archeological site was discovered. It contained the stunningly preserved  ‘Lost Golden City’ in what was known as the city of Thebes, then. Nathan was the excavation director, and he had been working here for the last year. It was an exceptional location for him. These ruins were the place queen Nefertiti had once lived- three thousand four hundred years ago. This realization filled him with awe and wonder.  As he inspected the site, he would imagine her, dressed in all her finery, walking along the lanes, her haughty bearing characterizing her gait.  It was the excavation season, and hectic work was in progress in the trenches. Nathan had completed the arduous job of listing the finds of the day. He had dictated some of the descriptions into a dictaphone. He had hurriedly finished some drawings and listings before sundown.  The sun was about to set on the desert. The harsh sunlight gave way to a mild refreshing breeze, bringing temporary relief to the workers. But soon, the biting cold would take over and make life in tents difficult.  Nathan loved this time of the day. The cook and his assistants were busy tending to a campfire. Sweet smells wafted in from the reddish broth boiling in giant urns over them. The local workers sat around a fire and sang some lilting, melodious Egyptian song. The reddish sands undulated mysteriously in a never-ending stretch before the site. Pitch darkness would soon envelop them, swallowing the contours and making the desert an endless dark expanse. The few lanterns and temporary electric lights came to life suddenly at the site and threw up huge, wavery shadows. The vast desert stretched before him, meeting the horizon at some point in the infinity.  He sat with a drink in his favorite blue mug on one of the portable chairs. For some reason, he suddenly remembered Lakshmi teacher. He thought of her with gratitude. She was instrumental in his living his dream life. *** Monika and Nathan were walking along the trenches, discussing the finds. She sounded puzzled. “I can't understand what had happened here. Not only has this city been abandoned, but there is also no information about anything that had occurred here. Usually, the excavated cities have a wealth of knowledge about the day-to-day happenings in cuneiforms, hieroglyphics, and other logographic scripts. There would be tell-tale signs from the articles, pots, and pans lying around. It looks like the people deserted the city, and later someone wiped out everything.” Nathan remarked thoughtfully, “Monika, I noticed that there is a secret room in the ruins of the palace, where a few articles had been left, and the signs of devastation noticeable in all other places are absent there. Let’s check that room.” *** As they walked through the cleared area, Nathan and Monika wore all the necessary gear and were careful not to pollute the finds. Nathan guided her to the room he had mentioned.  Monika looked through the print copy of the satellite images and exclaimed, “Nathan, this is a secret room. It looks like it is attached to Queen’s chamber.” But except for some stash of jewelry, there was nothing there.  Nathan exclaimed, “Because of its secret location, the attackers must have missed this room. Nefertiti was the King’s consort at the time. How I wish we could get a peek into the palace and see what had happened here 3400 years ago!” *** Much later, after dinner, Monika called Nathan into her tent and said, “I am sorry to give you this bad news. The university is not renewing its funding. If only we could have found some evidence to tell us why the city was abandoned!  Or about who ransacked the city? Without any information, they are unwilling to extend their funding.” Nathan was dismayed. “Does it mean we will have to close down the digs?” Monika nodded gloomily.  “How much time do we have before they shut us down?”  “Five more days.” *** Nathan called Monika from Cairo International airport.  “I will not be at the site for a couple of days. I am leaving on a mission to save our excavation and help us get funding. Wait till you hear from me.” “But Nathan, where are you going, and what do you plan to do?” “ I am going to Singapore, but I can't reveal to you anything about it. But please trust me..” Nathan cut the phone before Monika could ask him more questions.   *** Nathan had a friend called David Yak, a neuroscientist. They had been friends since their days together at Cambridge. Dr. David lived in Singapore and had discovered a way for time travel. When Nathan had approached him about his problem, David had readily agreed to transport him into the ancient city of Thebes.  The only rule was that he could not interact with any of the people from that period or take things out of Thebes. None of the people in the ancient city could see or feel him. He would be invisible to them.  *** But David had warned him that he could be there only for a few hours. Once his time was up, he would resurface in Singapore, from where he had started his time travel. *** Nathan felt that his body and satchel had reassembled after being broken into atoms. He felt slightly unsteady.  He had suddenly appeared in what he assumed was Thebes, whose coordinates he had given Dr. David. As he walked swiftly through the city, he noticed that it had already been abandoned. There was not a single person on the streets. There were signs of hurried departure with the roads full of discarded possessions like pottery and clothes,  He walked confidently and reached the palace because he was familiar with the layout. *** He made his way into the Queen’s chamber and heard someone talking. His heartbeat stopped for a while when he saw that it was Nefertiti.  She was talking to a person he guessed would be her steward, Meryre 11.  He could not stop staring at Nefertiti.  Her skin glowed in Mediterranean hues. A broad collar with a floral pattern adorned her long graceful neck. Mysterious hooded eyes, a long nose, and a strong jaw marked her face. She wore a full-length silver gown that showed off a svelte body. His heart beat so fast that he had to take a deep breath and remind himself that he had work to do. He watched spellbound as Nefertiti paced the room with angry grace: Like a caged tigress. He went nearer, so he could hear them better. The musical language sounded like a melody, as his mind automatically translated the conversation to English. Meryre stood with his hands held behind his back. “It was good that you moved our people to Akhetaten, our new city, so quickly. Otherwise, these men would have butchered them mercilessly. They intend to wreck the town and obliterate everything about the King and you. Nefertiti replied in a voice that sounded sweet and harsh at the same time. “No one should know that my husband, King Akhenaten is dead. People would lose their morale. He had introduced Atenism and the worship of the sun god to the country.  But the Asiatics and the Nubians, our neighboring states and bitter enemies, have declared war on us, calling us heretics. Nefertiti paused and said with a sad wince.  “Poor Akhenaten He will be called an apostate for daring to think differently from his contemporaries.  They plan to destroy every good thing he has done and obliterate his name from all the records.” She paused and looked up and said vehemently. “I don't want his name blackened and expunged by history. That's why I have asked Parennefer to write Akhenatan’s true story quickly, highlighting his philosophy, religious beliefs, and good deeds.” Nefertiti looked as if her thoughts were far away.  “He would have recorded Akhenaten’s forward thoughts about religion, his vision for a new world, and the golden period he had ruled over. I have asked Parennefer to write about the enemies who intend to besmirch the King’s name and destroy everything about him. Parenneferr will make sure their twisted evil version will not prevail. We will leave it in the secret chamber, where the enemies cannot reach.”  Suddenly they heard a commotion outside. There were loud sounds surrounding the palace—neighing of horses, marching of feet, and harsh battle cries.   Meryre became alarmed and pushed Nefertiti firmly out of the Queen’s chamber towards a secret exit. Almost immediately, Parannefer tottered into the room, carrying a loosely bound sheaf of papyrus. There was blood covering his chest and a huge knife sticking out. His wild fear-filled eyes searched the room frantically. There were sounds of men following him with whoops of hate.  Parannefer wobbled on his feet, dropped his precious bundle, and fell down dead. Nathan immediately pounced on the papyrus roll and hurried with it into the secret chamber.  The soldiers who followed him with raised swords thrust them into the already dead body and rushed out. *** Nathan knew he had very little time to get out. He realized the importance of the papyrus roll he held in his hands to the archeological fraternity of the whole world. He understood what this shabby-looking bundle would mean to the future of their excavation.  He could not take it out. But he could make sure that the excavators could find it as soon as possible and inform Monika. He had to catch their attention. His brain worked hard, and he knew what he had to do. He left the papyrus bundle on the floor. He carefully reached into the satchel that hung from his shoulders. *** Monika was in her tent when she heard the local workers’ inhuman wails of fear and superstition. She rushed to the site and saw that they were all crowded into the secret room attached to the Queen’s chamber they were working in.  Most of them were kneeling and praying. Monika pushed them aside to see what had caused the consternation.  All the workmen were staring at a strange object in the middle of the room. It was buried under layers and layers of dust. The bright blue color had faded to a dull sheen. But there was no mistaking the mug. After all, it was she who had gifted it to Nathan. She bent down with a hedonistic thrill to observe the papyrus roll underneath.  She knew that Nathan had succeeded in his mission.  Author Notes: FACTS
  1. Discovery of  3400 years old ‘Lost Golden City’ by archeologists at modern Luxor in 2021.
  2. King Amenhotep 1V  abandoning the capital city,  changing his name to Akhenaten, and founding a new religion, along with his wife, Queen Nefertiti.
  3. All information about Akhenaten, his new religion, his art, even his name being obliterated from history.
I have taken an artist’s liberty in sketching my version of what could have happened. *** Since I did not want to take up a lot of words to explain Time Travel, I have used Lalitha Ramanathan’s Dr. David Yak, the neuroscientist from Singapore, to help my story move along efficiently. My special thanks to Lalitha for letting me use her character.    Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!