Martya, his grandmother, narrated stories of Bhuloka, where the humans lived, prospered, and died. Tales of their valour, love, and the epic wars they waged piqued his curiosity and will to explore. Airavat dreamt of living amidst them. The urge to belong to humans was so fierce, the absence of it felt like a physical blow.
His mother died when he was young, and Martya helped raise him. Airavat was the son of the ruling naga king of the seven lower lokas. Theirs was the last loka, the 14th, Patalaloka or Nagaloka. Airavat was a dreamer, and it infuriated his father, Vasuki no end. Virya, his sister, was a far better candidate, but as per the rules of ascension, the firstborn inherited the crown. Vasuki failed in his endeavour to dissuade Airavat from his Bhuloka obsession.
On Airavat’s 18th birthday, Vasuki hugged and blessed him.
“Live well and prosper. What should I get you?”
“Father, do you love me?”
“Of course, I do. You are my son.”
“I doubt the veracity of that statement.”
“Your love for me is conditional, father. You aren’t willing to sacrifice for me.”
“Rubbish! Ask me for anything, and I will prove my love is peerless.”
“Let me go to Bhuloka. That is all I want.”
Airavat had stumped him and tangled him up in logic. If he didn’t follow through with his promise, Airavat would be right, and …how could he? Anger coursed through his veins.
“Airavat! It is not feasible for you to go there. This is Martya’s fault. Always talking about the lokas.”
“See, I told you. Your love is conditional. Hence proven.”
Vasuki was enraged, “If you want to go to Bhuloka, go! I permit you. When you reach Bhuloka, disappointment will crush you. Humans ruin everything they touch. Your heart will ache to return, but it will be impossible. But, I too have a condition.”
“I can go? When can I leave? Is there a wormhole?”
“You, impertinent child! Listen to my condition.”
“I will renounce you and handover the crown to Virya!”
“She deserves it more.”
“Bah. Go! Leave us.”
Airavat spent the new few days imagining he was walking on the clouds. Patalaloka had neither sky nor clouds, or even light! Darkness always enveloped Patalaloka, the last rung in the ladder. The light from the manis the nagas wore illuminated the whole city. Amongst all the lower lokas, Patalaloka was considered to be the most beautiful.
In his quest, understanding time dilation was the first barrier. Sheshnag, a learned sage, explained.
“Time behaves differently for a moving and stationary object. If you observe an astronaut orbiting in space, then time moves in a contrary manner for both of you. If the astronaut is the nearing speed of light, the change becomes more noticeable.”
“I am confused.”
“Okay. Imagine, if you are on Bhuloka.”
“No need for imagination!”
“Yes, yes. So you sprint over to the Brahmaloka or Brahmand for 5 minutes from Bhuloka. When you return, you assume 5 minutes have elapsed, right?”
“Wrong! 5 minutes on Brahmand is not equivalent to five minutes of Bhuloka time, but it is akin to approximately 100 years on Bhuloka. Time on each loka behaves in a dissimilar manner, and it gets slower as we descend.”
“Since we are on a lower loka than Bhuloka, it is slower here. So, when I land, my age would be…”
“25, or so.”
“I will be entering my future.”
“In a way, yes.”
Sheshnag’s countenance became grim.
“Airavat, there is another unconsidered aspect. Travel to Bhuloka is not permissible as a naga, unless you change form. You have to take a human’s body. Once you reach Bhuloka, you can’t return. You will be there till you die. Are you ready for that sacrifice?”
Airavat’s heart vacillated.
Wanderlust or humdrum? Bhuloka!
Patalaloka was the farthest from Bhuloka, and he had to use a wormhole through Ganga to reach. To possess the strength to swim the thousands of kilometres, Airavat had to ingest a potion. It would grant him the power of 100 elephants. The potion was a naga secret, zealously guarded over generations. Strength flowed through his veins after he drank it.
His metamorphosis took some time to complete. He discarded his snake body for a human one. It was…disconcerting, to say the least. He felt like Gulliver while interacting with the other nagas. He would have to adjust to the new him. It was weird to use his feet to walk instead of slithering. He kept shuffling them!
What do humans do with their hands hanging down the entire day?
On the day of his departure, he bid a teary farewell to his family and experienced sullen silence from his father.
Here I come!
The Ganga bank at Varanasi was beautiful at dusk. With the last aarti, the entire city reverberated with the sounds of conches, bells, and mantras. Ganga, lit with thousands of floating diyas, appeared luminous, the light of the wicks reflecting on her surface. She appeared alive and aglow.
Rati stood at the ghats, the gentle November breeze playing hide-n-seek with her dupatta. It was her special place. She stood away from the crowd, enjoying the solitude.
Something in the water stirred. She peered closer, but the fading light made it challenging. She saw a hand erupt from the waters and submerge.
Is it a figment of my imagination? No! There it is, again.
This time around, two hands came up. She cried out for help, but the conch overpowered her voice. She wavered for a moment, then chucking her dupatta aside, she jumped into the water. She came into contact with a man. He was flailing and gasping.
Rati was a strong swimmer. It is a natural skill when one lives near a riverbank. She encircled the drowning man and brought him ashore. By the time they had reached, the aarti was over. Her father, Bhudev, spotted her and rushed towards her.
“Rati, what happened, beta?”
“Baba, I saw this man drowning, and I jumped to rescue him.”
Bhudev administered CPR to the unconscious man. The young man spluttered water and coughed. He opened his bewildered eyes. Two unknown human faces peered at him. He looked around with wonder.
“Is this Bhuloka?” His voice was raspy.
“No, this is Varanasi,” replied Rati.
“Varanasi? Yes! I am on the ghats! It worked!”
Father and daughter exchanged confused looks.
“What is your name, son?”
“I am Airavat, son of Vasuki.”
“Err. Okay. Airavat, why don’t you join us for a meal?”
“Oh, yes. I am hungry. Will there be eggs? I love them.”
“No, Airavat. Eggs are not kosher as we are Brahmins.”
“Fascinating. The Vedas believe life sprung from the cosmic egg, the Hiranyagarbha. Yet, the egg isn’t considered apropos.”
Bhudev didn’t respond. His thoughts were derailed by the whole Hiranyagarbha theory. On reaching home, Rati gave Airavat some of Bhudev’s clothes to change. Then they served a simple meal. Airavat ate with gusto. He felt famished after his swim.
Airavat said, “Thank you for saving my life.”
Bhudev asked, “What were you doing in the water, son?”
I cannot reveal the truth. They may think I am delusional.
“I was out for a swim, and that is all I remember.” He hung his head.
“How about your family? Where are you from?”
“I cannot recall. My name is the only thing I remember.”
“The shock of drowning may have tired you out. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Airavat’s excitement kept him up all night. He was on Bhuloka! He was disappointed it was dark by the time he landed, but even the night fascinated him. The stars twinkled in the kohl sky. He gazed at them while his sleeping mate Bhudev blew weird noises through his nose.
Is this how humans sleep?
Early morning found him sitting by the window, watching the breath-taking sunrise. The orange pinkish first light captured his attention. The way the rays gently absorbed the blackness around them was enchanting. There was so much beauty around-
“Good morning, Airavat. Did you sleep well?” asked Rati.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Care for some tea?”
Rati handed a cup of steaming brown liquid to him. It smelt aromatic. His first sip was tentative.
What is this elixir? No treasures in Patalalok can match it!
He found Rati watching him with amusement. “Is it how you like it?”
“This is the best cup of tea I’ve ever had!”
Rati nodded at him as she busied herself with the household work. He watched as she puttered around.
Humans had such expressive faces and so much to express.
After a shower -another unique experience, he set out to explore Varanasi.
By the evening, Airavat experienced bone-shattering exhaustion. He was so busy sightseeing that he forgot to eat. The cityscape around him matched none of his mental images. Where were the lush green gardens? Where were the sentinel trees that sung duets with the birds? Where were the birds whose songs were a prelude to the slice of heaven? How green was my valley? All he could see, as far as the crow flew, were houses, buildings, and more houses. Had Martya misled him?
He slumped against a tree stump, disappointment weighing him down. His astonishment slowly trickled into pools of disbelief. The concrete jungle, the filthy roads, the pollution, none of it appeared real. Yet, he was on Bhuloka, and it was not the place of his dreams.
Was it a mistake to come here? Well, this is home now. I must adjust.
Determined, he stood, only to land back as waves of weakness assaulted him. Feelings of despondency mingled with hunger and fatigue. He put his head on his knees, staring at Ganga. His inner turmoil, a contrast to her peaceful meanderings.
“What are you doing, Airavat? Is your memory back?”
At the shake of his head, Bhudev, with kindness, suggested. “I have a proposition for you. Let us talk while we eat.” Airavat’s eyes had spoken to Bhudev.
“My friend owns this bholnalaya. He needs a busboy and is ready to adjust the wages against the living quarters. May I give you some advice? While you wait for your memories to return, why don’t you try and make a living here?” asked Bhudev.
Airavat was overcome by the goodness emanating from Bhudev.
How do humans switch between the roles of destroyers and nurturers with such finesse?
He nodded. “Bhudevji, I have a question. Why is your house at a distance from the other houses?”
“You are very observant, Airavat. We are the Mahapatras, and we conduct the funeral rites. When a person dies, the family calls us. Since death isn’t welcomed, we are not, either. In fact, we are ostracized, considered as untouchables within our circle of Brahmins. It’s …complicated,” he said with a wry smile. “Why don’t you talk to Manohar about the job while I pay up?”
Many winters later, Airavat knew he had found his place, his piece of thread in the tapestry of life. In his moments of solitude, he was grateful to the principles of time dilation. For, they enriched his maturity by padding his age. A maturity his teenager self would have sorely lacked.
After the crushing initial disappointment, he began to see the beauty in the leftover bits of nature. Slowly, the hidden beauty of Varanasi presented itself to him. The crowded ghats, the temples, the noise, they captivated him.
He was often overwhelmed by the generosity strangers displayed and the nadirs of their cruelty. Bhudev and Rati were the only anchors in his life. They accepted his amnesia claim with equanimity and proceeded to imbibe him in their family. His past held no importance to them.
He would meet Rati every evening at the ghat for the evening aarti. He was brimming with questions that Rati would answer with patience.
“Why are there so many concrete structures?”
“Varanasi is fast turning into a metro city, and the spate of construction bears testimony to it.”
“Why is Ganga so dirty?”
“Hush. Speak softly. We dislike facts thrown at our faces. Ganga, what can I say about her? She is the holiest of our rivers and the most neglected one. She is akin to the goose with the golden egg. We want the golden eggs to keep coming, but we don’t desire to spend any effort in keeping the goose alive. Someday, we will pay for our mistakes, but till we do, we will keep committing them.”
“Why can’t they keep it clean?”
“Apathy. It is my life’s dream to see Ganga clean. As a goddess, she deserves so much more from us.”
“I will help you.” Rati smiled.
Rati unveiled the hidden secrets of Varanasi to him. Every Sunday, they ferreted out a forgotten lane to explore. They went on boat rides and long swims. Rati’s simplicity touched him. Her strength, gentleness, and kindness were a fine match for Ganga. While they uncovered Varanasi, he discovered the hidden facets of Rati’s personality. She opened up to him like a blooming flower, petal by petal.
Every instance he spent with Rati, his happiness knew no bounds. Her laughter at his inquisitive questions made his heart flutter. They would stand together for the last aarti. Her hand would occasionally graze his as she pointed out things. His nonstop chatter and comments made her laugh. He didn’t want the evenings to end, for, without her company, life was lonely. Airavat had fallen in love with Rati but lacked the courage to confess it. On some days, he felt Rati reciprocated his feelings though he could never be sure.
Soon, I will declare my love to her.
His gut feelings were correct. Rati had, in fact, fallen in love with the strange fellow she had rescued. His observations were accurate, and his questions, on another level. Sometimes, she suspected he was from another planet, all together! He constantly quizzed her, forcing her to analyse her life. It was a very endearing trait, and it drew him closer to her. Like a wooden Trojan horse, he had snuck into her heart and captured it. Rati knew Airavat had deep feelings for her but was shy. Rati was sure about her feelings and planned to talk to Bhudev about their future tomorrow. On days like these, she missed her mother the most. She had passed away a few years back, leaving Rati alone with her beloved father. But now, she had Airavat.
The relentless rains kept him up the entire night. It seemed as if mother earth was inconsolably weeping. Her frustrations with humans and their deeds breaking the last vestiges of her maternal instincts. A feeling of foreboding swelled up in his heart, like the waters of Ganga. Inching above the danger mark. He tossed and turn, restless, aching to do something.
Do what? It’s 4.00 am!
He sat up, shrugged aside the pretense of sleep. Some residual primal naga sense made his hair stand. He wanted to be close to Rati and Bhudev. Unlike him, they stayed in the lower areas of Prayagraj. He rose.
Meanwhile, the rain came down in torrents. Ganga had broken through the barriers and submerged the ghats. This avatar of Ganga was rarely ever seen, angry and vengeful. Her waters ran amok, infiltrating everywhere and everything. The flooding had begun.
Airavat rushed out to find shoulder-high water had submerged Prayagraj. Water surrounded every crevice. He swam against the force as he did many years ago. Then, his destination was Bhuloka, and now, it was Rati. A sense of urgency egged him on.
Darkness shrouded Rati’s house. On entering, he found Bhudev, floating face down on the water. He waded through the debris in their house to reach him. Bhudev, the doer of death rituals, was dead. Tears flew down his cheeks as he mourned his loss. Frantically, he searched for Rati. There! He paddled towards her. She was unconscious, barely breathing. He encircled her and swam out in search of high-ground.
Airavat found a stack of wood used for funeral pyres where the top was dry. He placed Rati on it and tried to revive her. His movements were frantic, desperate. She coughed out water and opened her eyes.
“I tried to save baba, drag him out, but I failed. I was too weak. I couldn’t save him, Airavat.” She took a shaky breath.
Her eyes closed, and her body shuddered as he grasped her hand, “Rati!”
A lot happened since the deluge. Rati survived the near-drowning, and she and Airavat built a life together. Life had gifted them a second chance. Marriage flowed into a family. Their children, Bhudev, and Martya were deeply involved in environmental activities like their mother.
The destruction caused by the floods was catastrophic. When the waters receded, the town was covered with debris. Rati and Airavat used this opportunity to launch a ‘Clean Ganga’ campaign. Their ideas were initially met with opposition, for centuries of rituals won’t be changed in a day. But it didn’t faze them or their ideas. They lined up segregated dustbins at the ghats. Lanes adjacent to Ganga and her tributaries were declared no-construction zones. STP machinery was installed for the reuse of wastewater, preventing it from re-entering and polluting Ganga. Restoring and rejuvenating Ganga was their mantra, and they tasted partial success in their endeavour.
Airavat, in his nineties, gazed at Ganga. She had taken plenty from him but had given him so much in return. She was his conduit to Earth, his home.
A naga prince from the Patalaloka, thousands of kilometres under Bhuloka, had risen above her surface, lived, loved, and fought epic wars. Martya was right. The magic was always present within humans. They had just forgotten how to look for it.
- Loka – Place or planet.
- Hiranyagarbha – The cosmic egg.
- Beta – Son.
- Patalalok – The7th loka under the surface of our earth. It is said to be ruled by the serpent king Vasuki. The same serpent encircles Lord Shiva. It is not to be confused with Narakaloka.
- Bhuloka – Earth.
- Naag – Snake or serpent.
- Ghat – Banks of a river.
- Bhojnalaya – Eatery.
- Aarti – Prayer.
- Mani – Jewels.
- Brahmaloka or Brahmand – The first loka.
- Prayagraj – a place in Varanasi.
- STP – Sewage Treatment Plant.
- CPR – Cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Our Hindu scriptures cite several examples of how time dilation works. For e.g. Story of Revati and her groom, Balaram, or other stories from Mahabharata. They have categorized 14 lokas with earth being the 7th one. Time, as proven by science, functions differently in different situations. This theme was the basis for the Hollywood movie, Interstellar.
Almost all mythologies around the world talk about the evolution of earth as the hatching of a cosmic egg. Hindus believe that Lord Brahma self-actualized from the egg. That is why the first loka is called Brahmand. The two halves were the earth and heaven with the yolk as Lord Agni. The mist in the egg formed the waters on earth. They estimate earth to be 4.32 billion years (where science claims it is 4.54, not bad, eh?)
Incidentally, the lokas were designed such that the demons, asuras, or nagas didn’t hop over to the land of humans or vice versa. My story is a fictionalized account of mythology.
There are some literary Easter eggs (sentences (I hope!)) in the story.
I have used the theme of time and global warming from the inscrutable prompt. I have tried to use eggs but have managed to do that very loosely (in my humble opinion). The flooding shows a world in chaos.
No character, event, or place is meant to hurt the sentiments of the readers. No animals were hurt while writing the story. In fact, the reverse stands true.
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