I discovered the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of God, in a glorious translation from the Sanskrit, much, much later; one of the finest explorations, in any language, on the answers to common existential questions asked the world over. This magnificent book deserves an entry on its own, later…
There were a number of new, exciting science fiction authors in the 1950s and 60s. Stanislaw Lem, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke, to name only a few. I had the good fortune to listen to a lecture by Arthur Clarke (He was not yet Sir Clarke; that would happen only in the year 2000) at the Museum Theater in Madras. The theater was part of the National Art gallery that was housed in a stately pink-walled example of Indo-Saracenic architecture typical of the mid-to-late 1800s. He talked excitingly about space exploration, and his brainchild, geostationary communication satellites (this was 1962!). I was a shy fourteen year-old and, at question time, diffidently asked something about his fiction, perhaps Rendezvous with Rama. I remember his answer was very courteous and detailed, although some technophiles in the audience glared impatiently at me for daring to waste his time asking about stories when there were so many more important questions to be asked.
The science fiction story below was published in 1995, in an early online fiction magazine called InterText. The science part of the story is nominal, and secondary to the story underlying it; the story of an enduring love.
“There was only passion in the beginning,” said the Old One slowly, pouring himself another round of gin. He added Saturn Ice and held up the glass admiringly, savoring the greens and golden yellows that flashed from the cold crystal and swirled like mists through the gin, glowing in the dying light as though breathing life into the potent liquid.
“And then what happened?” asked Little One. He loved listening to the Old One, Little One did, steeping himself in tales of other times on other worlds, wonderful times, wonderful worlds. Little One knew nothing of physical passion, which was a relic of those other times. Only the oldest survivors of civilization, widely-travelled oldsters like the Old One, could talk about these things from personal experience.
“The funny thing about physical passion is that it breeds its own kind of cosmic dynamics.” The Old One sipped slowly, relishing the gin as he dreamt of other fountains at which he had drunk in his varied youth. He smiled faintly as he dreamt. Little One looked at the Old One with amused tolerance. Soon old age would take its toll of his spent shell and he would be gone. This particular formation of flesh and blood, living cells and human fiber, would cease to exist. After that Little One would only be able to communicate with the Old One by thought, and that was never as satisfying as the reality of flesh and blood. To think the Old One’s thoughts in his own brain could and never would be as satisfying as listening to the sound of his reminiscing voice and seeing the twinkle of past happiness shine through his eyes.
“What do you mean, cosmic dynamics?”
“Don’t look for exact meaning. You won’t find any. If you try to grasp it, you will be disappointed.”
“Why use these words, then? Why say something when you have nothing to say? And why be silent when you have something to say?”
“You don’t understand,” said the Old One, banging his glass down on the tabletop in sudden annoyance. The table was a state-of-the-art force-field, a multicolored surface which absorbed all the impact of the Old One’s movement. The glass would have shattered on any ordinary table. “You don’t understand. We used to have other ways of communicating in those days.”
“I know all about that,” said Little One with a superior smile. “I’ve read in the history books that in the old days, your Stone Age, your predecessors used to communicate with harsh guttural cries.”
“No. At the time I’m talking about we used to communicate without words, without using sound at all.”
“What! You used to communicate without words?”
“Yes, of course.” The Old One’s thick, gray eyebrows rose to twin peaks. “We did it all the time.”
“How could you communicate intellectual ideas without words? You’re surely talking about writing. You used to set your thoughts down in cumbersome fashion on white planar surfaces using complicated, liquid-filled marking instruments and button-controlled hammer mechanisms.”
“We had better ways than that and certain things are more worthwhile than abstract intellectual ideas,” smiled the Old One. It was his turn to look superior. He took pity at Little One’s perplexity. Little One thought he was clever. He thought wisdom lay in what he had learned in the history books. That knowing about pens, typewriters, word processors and other outdated writing implements increased his power. “Yes, we had better ways than that,” the Old One repeated. “We used to communicate through our other three senses; touch, taste and smell.”
Little One tinkled in amusement, humoring the older man. After all, he was two hundred years his senior, and one had to make allowances for that.
“Can you show me how?” he asked indulgently.
The Old One’s hand shot out and smacked the open end of Little One’s communicator, causing it to swell and turn blue.
“Like this, for instance,” said the Old One pleasantly. “But there were other ways, which needed special circumstances.”
“What kind of special circumstances?”
“Oh, um, privacy, for example.”
“Privacy? Great Galactic Gonads! Why did you need privacy for communication?”
“Look. Little One. Do you know anything about philosophy?”
“Oh, that stuff!” Little One’s communicator imploded in distaste. “An ancient educational tape did whisper something in my ear about philosophy. Why?”
“There were many kinds of philosophy, you know, and hundreds of different philosophers.”
Little One was almost asleep with boredom. “Tell me more,” he yawned.
“There were hundreds of different philosophers; Bacon, Locke, Spinoza, Radhakrishnan. There were dozens of schools of philosophy, the Greek, the Roman, the Judeo-Christian, the Hindu, the Buddhist and its Japanese offshoot, Zen.”
The Old One, afire with enthusiasm for the past, paid no attention to Little One’s gentle snore. He was speaking for himself, reliving other kinds of encounters, others ways of communication which were unfortunately now extinct.
“It’s especially Zen I want to talk to you about, because this philosophy is particularly unconfined by those times. The language of Zen is modern even today, and I’m sure you’ll have no problem grasping the ideas it tried to express. And through Zen, you’ll be able to come to an understanding of the euphoria of communication by nonverbal means.”
Little One was snoring loudly now, but the Old One did not wish to stop. He reached over and hit the button of his companion’s passive voice recorder, knowing that the conversation would be automatically played back when the Little One awoke.
“Yes, communication by nonverbal means. It was wonderful, simply wonderful and it was impossible to express this wonder in words. For that you had to bypass words, conventional communication, and convey ideas in the mental shorthand of Zen.” With a snap of his fingers, the Old One made an aural asterisk for Little One’s passive recorder, so that he could insert a question here when he awoke.
“You have probably never heard of koans. A koan is a Zen mechanism whereby you try to associate ideas that are essentially non- associable. But you are asked to try; and in trying you realize the absurdity of trying, and learn to accept. Let me begin with an example. The most well-known of all koans was the following: The master says, clapping his hands, ‘This is the sound of two hands clapping. Now tell me, what is the sound of one hand clapping?’
“And when you knew the answer, you heard the sound. Of course there was no answer, and that was the answer; and there was no sound, and it was that no-sound that you had to learn to hear, the sound of silence. And when you heard the sound of one hand clapping and accepted it, you were on the path, the Tao of Zen. No, it’s wrong to say you were on the path. Rather, you yourself became the Tao of Zen, even as you, Little One, are the Tao of the twenty-fifth century. Do you see?”
The old one asked the question and inserted another aural asterisk here with a snap of his fingers.
“There was another famous example used by Zen to dislocate conventional ideas. This is told in the form of the following story. One day a would-be disciple went to the master and said: ‘Teach me. I want to learn everything you know.’ The master invited him to a cup of tea. He set a cup in front of the disciple and began to pour. The cup filled, overflowed, filled the tray and spilled over on the floor. Still the master poured. ‘Master, master, my cup is full,’ said the disciple finally. ‘You are like this cup,’ said the master. ‘How can I fill you until you empty yourself?’ ”
The Old One stretched on his airbed.
“So you see, Little One, life was full of imperfections in those days, but it was these very imperfections that made everything so enjoyable. And often you had to drain yourself like the Zen master’s cup, because until you were empty, you were not ready for another filling.”
So saying, the Old One drained his glass and poured himself another gin. He was getting quite fuddled now, and the aching power of lost memories made him want to cry. There was a lump in his throat and he had difficulty swallowing, so he did not add Saturn Ice to the drink. He drank the gin pure, something his doctor had warned him never to do.
The power of nostalgia to transport him back to the happiness of his youth! Not that he hadn’t been happy in later life. Of course he had. He had progressively left pieces of his body behind, to be replaced by more durable components. By the middle of the twenty- fourth century, he, like many others of his generation, was a completely new man, so new that the term “generation gap” ceased to have any meaning. Many of the Old One’s parts were no different from that of the average twenty year-old. But there was one thing that the replacement people could not duplicate. The imprints that ancient sensations had left on his brain. These imprints were like the footprints of extinct animals immortalized and petrified in volcanic soil. And they were mind-numbingly beautiful.
He threw all caution overboard and poured himself a fifth glass of gin, three beyond his quota. Three hundred and seventy-eight years was a good old age. Or was it three hundred and eighty-eight? What did it matter? Time to go, in any case. Make a graceful exit. There was no point in hanging around slinging old-fashioned gins with the callous likes of Little One. Nowadays there was no difference between the sexes, so Little One knew nothing about old-fashioned sex. Twenty-fifth century intercourse was essentially a matter of exchanging views, and reproduction was a task for the qualified technician.
In his time, intercourse had meant something special; communication had been deep, ecstatic and wordless. He thought back to some times which had been special to him. He thought of her again, something he had not done for nearly a century. For some reason, at the instant when he thought of her, he stopped speaking to Little One. Deep inside of him, in his ultimate core, this was an experience that still demanded absolute privacy. Why, after all these years? He struggled to explain it, but could not. That too, was part of the Tao of Zen.
He was quite dizzy now, and thoughts swirled in and out of his gin-fogged brain like the mists that rose from the tray of multi- colored Saturn Ice on the force-field table beside his designer- molded air bed. Her image rose from the mists, as clearly defined in the fog as the last time he saw her, a century ago. She stood slim and erect and smiled at him. The Old One’s heart swelled almost to bursting at her beauty. She would always be like that for him. Even now, wherever in the galaxy she was, and whatever outward form she had chosen, she would still be for him as he had last seen her.
Ah, beauty! The Old One sighed and slowly shook his head in the fading light. Who could define it? Each age has its own standards, and standards change with the ages. But this is what he had tried to tell her. That she had an ageless quality that would always remain the same. Her beauty was not bound by time. He remembered trying to explain that to her. And she had laughed.
“Wait till you see me a half-century from now.”
And here he was, more than a century later. His body was feeble with age, but the memory of her was as powerful and clear as his longing for her beauty. What was this longing for her beauty? Was this simply a thing of firm flesh, pert breasts, slim calves and fine muscle tone? Of course that was a part of it. But the other part was something that you did not try to define. In the language of the Zen master, it was the sound of one hand clapping. And she brought forth that sound in the Old One. This was what he had tried to explain to her. That he loved her firm body, her beautiful face and her not-so- golden pubics. But even without all these charms, she would still bring forth in him that sound of Zen.
“Do you see, Nina?” he said softly to her in the darkness. He thought there was an answering reply, but it was merely the sound of Little One snoring.
It was then the audacious thought arose in his brain. Of course he would do it. He would ask the Master of the Universe the question that may be asked only once in each lifetime. As soon as the Old One’s mind was made up, the fog lifted from his brain and all his razor sharp perception flooded back to him. He absently tossed down the rest of the gin and then turned his eyes toward the nebula of Xanthus.
The Old One pressed the button near his heart that activated the crucial transmitter, the single-use-only, one-way communication machine, and let his thoughts roll. His thoughts turned to her without his knowing why. And then he heard the voice close to his ear. It was a voice he had never heard before, but he instantly knew who it was. The Master of the Universe.
“You called?” asked the deep, friendly voice. “Are you sure about this? Do you want to take your Terminal Trip now?”
“Are you sure?” the voice repeated. “You have some more time if you wish.”
“I’m certain. I’m certain.”
The Master of the Universe was nothing if not thorough.
“Would you mind stating your reasons for wishing to take this Terminal Trip?”
“Yes,” said the Old One. Suddenly the last missing vestiges of Zen clarity came flooding into his mind and the meaning of everything became clear. “I mean no, I wouldn’t mind stating my reasons for wishing to take the Terminal Trip. You see, Master of the Universe, I’ve been living for the past 150 years now in a world where the need for tactile communication has been eliminated and sex is nonexistent. The conditions of human life have been improved immeasurably, but I’m still used to, and long for, the old ways, imperfect though they were. I’ve had a good life, on the whole, and I have no complaints. From my point of view, you’ve done an excellent job.”
“Thank you,” said the Master of the Universe, deeply touched by the simple praise. It was not often that he was complimented by Terminal Trippers. More often than not, he was treated like a sort of galactic gondolier who merely ferried bodies to their final destinations.
“But now, I’ve had enough,” the Old One continued. “I feel so empty and used up, and there’s nothing left for me to do here. You probably can’t tell me what the destination is, so I won’t ask. But I want to go on, so please arrange my Terminal Trip at your earliest convenience.”
There was a brief silence. “Very well. We will leave at the rise of the third moon.”
The voice of the Master of the Universe was grave to suit the occasion, but inwardly he chuckled; for the Master knew something that the Old One did not, could not, know.
Just seconds earlier the Master had received another Terminal Trip request from a distant section of the Universe. And he knew with his superior knowledge that although her outward form had changed drastically with age, she would still bring forth in the Old One that feeling of overflowing in his heart that is the cup that spills over until it can hold no more.
Furthermore, he wished them well, because he also knew that where they were both going, they would have more than enough privacy to listen together to the ultimate sound in the universe.
The sound of one hand clapping