The Book of Alephs

The fear of infinity is a form of myopia that destroys

 the possibility of seeing the actual infinite.

— Georg Cantor

I found Nasrullah in his usual spot in an alley behind the stationery bazaar in Old Delhi. He was a sprightly old man with a weathered face, wearing a thick sweater and a turban mounted with a silver broach, sitting perfectly straight with his fingers firmly grasped around the base of a shapely brass hookah. His books were neatly displayed on a frayed carpet on the pavement, unperturbed by the crowd of pedestrians and pushcarts and even the odd cycle rickshaw cutting across the edge of the carpet. In that golden afternoon light, I saw well-worn hardcovers with gilt lettering and faded paperback Penguins from a bygone era, along with a comic-book extract from the Mahabharata. I also spotted a tattered Victorian edition of Three Men in a Boat, a work which had kept me laughing during a nasty bout of chickenpox the previous year.

Though his store didn’t have a roof and was located away from the typical haunts of pavement booksellers, Nasrullah was as dedicated as any of the upscale merchants in Khan Market. In British times he had roamed as far as Lahore and Chittagong in search of rare books, and even now he visited Calcutta every summer, scouring the second-hand bookstalls for titles that he believed his clients might like. Nasrullah once told me that he got into the book business for its twin pleasures: the company of books and the people who lived by them.

His long slender fingers descended on a fat volume with beige and red binding. “Three Men in a Boat can be amusing, but I have kept this one especially for you.”

“Why?”

“Because I know your tastes. You’re very different from my other customers!”

Nasrullah was right. Though I dressed fashionably in bell bottoms and cowboy boots and enjoyed a social drink, I didn’t fit in with the college crowd. My friends generally avoided visiting me, for my room was a complete mess. The floor was littered with cigarette butts and rolled-up balls of paper, from ideas and jottings that I had discarded, and people had to step carefully around the piles of books. I read every kind of fiction from anywhere in the world and pondered to no end about what I read.

Normally, a mind is a beautiful, well-oiled machine, filled with sensations and feelings and thoughts and plans, and gladly sharing its interpretations of the world. But mine had become overstuffed as a result of having read too many stories. And since that image I had of my mind with its excess load of stories was itself within my mind, it seemed fair to say that my mind was filled with stories within stories, ad infinitum. That thought, which echoed something I had read in the work of either Joyce or Royce, was enough to drive a young person crazy.

A bicycle went by, narrowly missing the corner of a beautifully bound Tagore hardback, and accompanied by a horrible squawking from a cageful of chickens protesting on the back seat.  A few feathers landed on the book that Nasrullah handed to me.

The Book of Alephs,” he said. “By H. Nadkarni.”

His eyes were watching me appreciatively, no doubt figuring out what price to charge.

“Is it an illegal copy? There are so many typos, starting with page two where the page number is printed as ½. And then the next one … is page one-third. And the page after that is numbered a quarter …”

Nasrullah took a slow bubbling draught on the hookah. His look was gentle and sympathetic.

“Nasrullah, why would the author go to the trouble of numbering pages by the harmonic series?”

I waited as the bookseller slowly blew out a series of bluish smoke rings, the last one fainter than the rest.

“Harriet Nadkarni was a polymath,” he said. “She lived not far from here, in a bat-infested haveli she rented from the writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri.”

“Harriet?” It was strange to think of a woman with that name living in one of those dilapidated mansions that once housed courtiers to the Moghul emperors.

“I believe her name was a corruption of Heghineh. She was of Armenian descent on her mother’s side.”

I thumbed through the weird-numbered pages, noting the numerous passages in italics, a sign of excessive delving into characters’ thoughts. “I hope it’s not like As I Lay Dying?” Luckily, I had wasted only five rupees on the Faulkner, after Nasrullah had asked for fifteen.

“It is as different from the work of that Mississippi postmaster as you can imagine. The Book of Alephs begins with a disillusioned young man named Amit meeting a bookseller on the streets of Old Delhi.” He laughed. “I will not be lying if I told you that Harriet modeled that bookseller on me!”

“There can be no greater compliment,” I said. “Especially if it is an entertaining work.”

Nasrullah laughed. “The book and you will get along well, young man.”

After a little haggling, we came to an agreement on a price of fifteen rupees for the novel. Book in hand, I hailed an auto-rickshaw back to college.

I opened the first page, and as we bumped along, injected yet another story into my overcrowded mind. I read how Amit, a young man with sunken eyes and a sallow, feverish look, wandered through the alleys of Old Delhi till he came upon his friend the old pavement bookseller.

Nasrullah was right, for the fictional bookseller did resemble him, except that the one in the story was missing a right thumb.

“Sir,” the bookseller said, “you are not at all like other young men. I have just the book for you.”

He picked up a paperback with a frayed red and white cover.

“May I suggest the Blake? It would be a perfect fit for you.”

Amit stared at the book. “The Auguries of Innocence?”

The bookseller cleared his throat and recited, in a calm, clear voice.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.”

“Thank you,” Amit said, cutting him off. “Long poems are not my thing.”

The bookseller set his hookah pipe aside. “Show me your palm, my friend.”

Steadying his thumb stub in the center of Amit’s palm, the bookseller rotated his forefinger gently in a circle.

Amit jerked his hand away.  “You’re supposed to mark a sideways eight, for infinity.”

The bookseller smiled. “Infinity is right under your nose, my friend.”

I put The Book of Alephs down. The traffic was slow on that stretch of Chandni Chowk, it being the evening rush hour. The buildings we passed were old and dilapidated, but the shop-fronts were decked out in bright colors that shimmered through the dust and exhaust fumes. Inhaling those toxic fumes, I had a sudden vision of Harriet Nadkarni. I could imagine a lovely Armenian-Indian woman with long dark hair and a muslin robe, leaning down from a high balcony. As I lingered under those waving tresses, I heard her whisper in my ear, telling me to focus on the infinite.

I was aware that the whisper was probably a projection of an inner voice reminding me to contemplate that infinity of stories within stories within stories that had overstuffed my mind. I needed to bring order to them, which involved going back and remembering each story, whether it came from the Mahabharata, the Mabinogion, or Maupassant.  Heeding Harriet’s reminder, I gave it a shot, sitting there in the auto, but after three, and then four attempts, I gave up.

It wasn’t that I had forgotten the plots or characters, because with a little effort, they would jump back to mind in the same way movie scenes and pop tunes did. The problem was that there were just too many stories for me to take on.  It was like trying to stare into the reflections between parallel mirrors—one would be trapped forever! Only a brilliant cataloguer, such as a librarian, archivist, or perhaps even a truly gifted novelist like Harriet, would have the energy to undertake a project of organizing such an infinite collection. But would that person ever have the time? And then I had a wild idea: if Harriet was immortal, she could do it. The stories would never end, but her enumeration of them would still go on! I was so glad to have at last discovered someone who could bring order to my collection, saving my mind from being overwhelmed by so many stories.

The main problem with that idea was my own mortality.

The breeze came in from the street, fetid and dusty, rustling the page, urging me to descend from those dizzy heights back to the world of the book and the circle in Amit’s palm.

“I think I understand,” Amit began.

“Yes, my young friend?”

“There are as many points along that circle as in …” Amit found he was holding his breath.

As in what? I too was holding mine at that point, a result of having too much mental machinery working in tandem.

“Go on,” the bookseller said.

“As in the entire universe!” Amit said finally.  “That imaginary circular line you inscribed in the palm of my hand is made up of little points, right? And those points sit in one-to-one correspondence with the set of numbers from zero up to 2𝜋.”

“2𝜋? You mean the ratio of the circle’s circumference to its radius?”

“Precisely!” Amit said, his voice growing louder with excitement. “As for that set of numbers, don’t forget it includes decimal numbers. The latter are truly diabolical, for between any two there will always be a third popping its horrible head up!”

“Go on,” the bookseller said calmly.

Amit was scratching himself, and then, gazing at his fingernail, observed that there were more molecules on the tip of his finger than stars, dead or alive, in the universe. And yet those molecules could be counted and were finite in number. They really didn’t amount to much, Amit said, compared to the smallest infinity Aleph-zero, which was the size of the infinite set of digits one counted with. And the latter was certainly much smaller in size than that of the mysterious diabolical set of numbers from zero up to 2𝜋, whose size was called Aleph-one.

A curious smile came to his lips. “In fact, the damn set, which is the same size as that of the set of so-called real numbers, is so vast that it can’t be counted, not even by an immortal!”

I was astonished to read that last word, the very same one which had a few seconds earlier passed through my mind, which was already churning away, trying to imagine the mysterious set Amit had mentioned. To think that Aleph-one was a size that couldn’t be enumerated, not even by an immortal like Harriet!

Reading on, I learned that Amit stopped on the way back from the bookseller’s at a little roadside shack or dhaba. He was about to take his first sip of chai when he saw someone pass by, in a red dress and black veil. He trembled, and then his fingers let go of the steaming glass. Letting it smash to the earthen floor, he ran out of the shop to follow the lady. She was walking briskly, and he had to slow down to remain unseen, staying a good hundred yards behind. Meanwhile, the shouts of the dhaba owner receded, and then the lady in the veil turned down an alley to the left. He followed her there, into the depths of a rubbish-filled street.

If I was Amit, I wouldn’t have done that. No matter how brilliant or frustrated you might be, you don’t stalk a woman. There are rules, even in Delhi. But reading on, it was clear that Amit was smitten, and when that happens madness can easily result.

The woman turned into a dilapidated haveli. When Amit arrived at the entrance, he saw that it resembled a palace, with lattice screens, tall arches and Roman pillars, but the roof was sloping and the pillars were sagging. The masonry had fallen off from an upper story, with piles of debris accumulated on the pavement, mingling with the street rubbish. With huge holes in the walls, the palace was certainly well-ventilated, but it was hard to imagine anyone in their right mind taking up residence there, living with rats, roaches, and other such creatures for company.

Amit dared not enter the haveli, but he came back the next day, having spent a sleepless night tossing and turning, thinking about the mysterious woman. But he was unable to find her. He returned every evening, until he spotted her at last entering the haveli, and then he mustered his courage and entered.

By the second chapter, a week had passed in the story. The Delhi air was thick with fog and filth, and Amit and the woman spent their time talking in the bare hall of the second floor of her residence. Their conversation was marked by an excessive use of double quotes, which disrupted the flow of the narrative, but that was the way Harriet wrote. It turned out that like Amit, the woman was gifted in mathematics, but having found the subject too ethereal dropped out to write stories about life in the streets of Old Delhi. And unlike Amit, who was always serious, she enjoyed a good laugh, and didn’t mind pulling his leg.

As I read more about their interactions, the lady seemed a shoo-in for Harriet, and in fact she bore the same name. To Amit, she appeared not just beautiful, but ravishingly so, even though he was yet to see her face, which remained veiled. I wondered if the real Harriet wore a veil. Perhaps it was a religious thing? Or did she have a facial scar? The machinery in my mind was crackling away, thinking of various possibilities, and whether the book would soon get into the physical aspects of their interaction, when I became aware that we were traveling through an unfamiliar district. I knew the path back rather well, and I wasn’t sure if the driver had lost his way or was deliberately driving off course for some sinister purpose.

The road was now passing between what seemed like newly developed skyscrapers, which was something of a surprise, as the newspapers had not mentioned any such structures coming up amid the ancient bazaars and warrens of Old Delhi. As I examined the buildings more closely, I completely forgot about the craziness of the driver, for these were not skyscrapers but towers extending upwards further than the eye could see, rearing up towards what must have been the most distant points in the universe!

The auto was driving close enough for me to view the carvings on the sides of the towers, which were in a style that reminded me of our Qutub Minar. Like that medieval tower, they had exquisite calligraphy on their sides, which upon further inspection proved to be long strings of numbers that had wound themselves like snakes around each column, with the far side of the columns remaining invisible to my eye. Gazing at those mystical sequences, which included the Biblical 666 as a subsequence, I couldn’t help wondering if the towers were a portal perhaps into paradise.

My eyes were now teary, for I felt I was at the brink of a visionary state, like that of Blake himself. Of course, I also suspected that it was probably my own overheated thoughts that were projecting onto the sides of these ziggurats that were zipping by.

And then I thought again of Harriet Nadkarni. Perhaps she was responsible for the towers. Assuming she was immortal, it would have been easy for her to create those splendid edifices for the benefit of the educated public. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that it was Harriet helping me out with my stories. Each long string might well have been a decimal code for the unique sequence of letters that characterized one of the stories I had read, as she flattened out my mind’s set of stories nested within stories into a list of numbers. She was leaning down now, her face still veiled, her listing going on forever, her long numbers stacked one above the other, climbing up the sides of the ziggurats that stretched towards the heavens.  

The driver was shouting and laughing as he turned the throttle to full. It was my bad luck to have picked a wild fellow like that who seemed sinister, and possibly mad. Observing that the traffic light had turned red, I was about to jump off and make a run for it, when I spotted something on a tower that looked out of place. Someone had disfigured the beauty of the calligraphy, carving an ugly oval across those numbers diagonally from bottom left all the way up to somewhere in the utterly invisible top right of the tower. That immense lozenge reminded me of a vast word jumble or puzzle, but here the diabolist or graffiti ‘artist’ or whoever he was had struck out each digit on that diagonal and replaced it with another of his choosing.

Staring hard at that unsightly ovoid, I finally figured out what that devil was up to. He had turned Harriet’s 1 into a 2, her 2 into 3, and so on, with the 9 swinging around and becoming 0. The wretch was trying to thwart Harriet, by constructing a new number that differed from the listing’s bottom number in its first digit, by adding 1 to it. The new number also differed from the listing’s second from bottom number in its second digit, again by adding 1 to it, and likewise differed from the listing’s third from bottom number in its third digit, and so on. And then I saw it. The devil’s new diagonal number was clearly not in Harriet’s listing, and yet it was a perfectly valid number for a story. Her flattened listing of my infinite set of stories was therefore uncountable, even by an immortal.

That horrible fellow had put paid to all the painstaking efforts of Harriet to help me order my stories as she leaned down from the heavens or the far side of the universe or wherever else immortals reside! And in doing so, since her listing seemed to involve, in their immensity, all the decimal strings, the devil was also confirming what Amit had claimed in The Book of Alephs, namely that Aleph-one was a number too vast to be counted, even by an immortal.

While my mind sizzled over this discovery, I also realized that Harriet had wasted quite a few of her silly-numbered pages with all that rigmarole in the novel about a circle and 2𝜋. Instead, she could have had her character Amit merely click his fingers, for that single second would contain an unfathomable, and uncountable, eternity of instants, as in the Blake poem.

The light turned green, and I had missed my chance to escape. Trapped in the auto, I could do nothing other than stare at the streets shooting by, the ziggurats stretching up towards the heavens while lower down, at eye level, a profusion of street vendors carried on as if nothing had happened. On offer were vats of steaming chaat and bubbling goal guppers, and shiny pyramids of fly-ridden jalebis and burfies, with people feeding like there was no tomorrow. I wanted to beg the driver to stop, to offer him a hot chai at the very next dhaba and make peace with him. Perhaps I had misjudged him, for there is no reason, in real life, to assume strangers are evil. He may have simply misheard the name of my college.

Satisfied with that explanation of the driver’s innocence, I returned to my book. In Chapter 3, the conversation became more intimate, with Amit pressing ahead. He brought her rare roses filched from the gardens of the University, and read her the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose biography was another Nasrullah find that I had enjoyed. Amit also shared with her, as lovers do, his fantasies and dreams. Being someone who had never left the Indian plains, he promised that they would one day travel to the Himalayas together, enjoying spectacular views of Nanda Devi and Kanchenjunga, as well as perhaps Mount Ararat in Armenia and the Rosengarten Massif in the Dolomites, mountains of which his father, who had been a pilot until his death in the Air India crash on Mont Blanc, had once shown him pictures.

Harriet said she was sorry about his father. Her parents, she said, had discarded her like a rag after she refused to entertain marriage with a plump and prosperous Parsi boy they had selected. She too wanted to run away, but would much prefer, she said, the wild peaks of Patagonia and the windswept steppes of Mongolia, because they were more in keeping with her nature. A woman with any dignity, she said, could not help feeling confined in India, and it was time for her, while still young, to run free and wild.

When I read that I knew that she was the woman of my dreams! For a mad moment I even felt that I had to get into the story and push that Amit fellow out of the way.

Unfortunately for me, when Amit showed her a pair of air tickets, Harriet surrendered to him, and he to her, and for the first time, he saw her unveiled. Hers was a most exotically beautiful face, with infinitely kind eyes with soft eyelashes and a curling lock of hair dangling over a moonlike cheek, the expression on her face almost placid in its sublimity as she waited with her red lips slightly parted, a few pearls of perspiration on her neck. In Chapter 4, they spent several torrid weeks together, with their lovemaking being described in the most florid language and with many passages of the characters’ thought processes being marked in italics. It was too much for me to bear.

My sobs were loud enough for the driver to turn back to see what was up, and I saw that he had a long, finely twirled mustache, of a kind worn by both the Spanish surrealist Dali and the Sri Lankan demon Ravana from the Ramayana. Why had I not noticed that before? The man’s eyes were also made up with exaggerated side-streaks extending earward like in a Kathakali dancer’s mask. The madman was bobbing his huge head up and down, laughing uproariously.

I panicked just then, thinking that the driver too might be linked to the devil who had done the diagonal. Could a whole horde of demons have descended on Delhi that evening? I prayed, for the first time in years, as the driver drove on, his face half-turned towards me, laughing, with a raucous, manic hilarity that only made me even more scared. And then my fears were disrupted by another radical idea.

I had completely forgotten that every story, no matter how weird or complex, was made up of nothing more than a sequence of letters. After all, Harriet, the light of my literary life, had just availed of that fact, generously coding up each story of mine as a decimal string corresponding to the story’s letter sequence. But what Harriet hadn’t included in her listing were the codes for all possible stories. That would include all stories that had been told thus far, many of which I hadn’t yet heard or read. And it would also contain all stories that could ever be told.

My mind was now soaring like one of the ziggurats. What was the raw material for all stories? People seemed to think the grist for fiction was life experience, one’s own or others, and material repeated from earlier stories. But I had a better idea. One would simply start with the set of all possible sentences anyone could utter. Then one could pick a first sentence, then a next, and as many more as necessary, to complete the story.

It was evening now, with the sun having set, and hunger was getting to me.  I couldn’t help thinking of those steaming chaat and bubbling goal guppers, and with those rumbles in my stomach my imagination started to run wild. If each sentence was like a succulent kebab or springy russ guller, one could conceive of a vast buffet, the sentences all neatly laid out in dishes by a master chef or event planner. The buffet would be like a gourmet’s ultimate fantasy, the tables with their fine linen tablecloths stretching away in parallel all the way to infinity. For added merriment at the feast, there would have to be drinks too, lovely liqueurs, fine spirits, and hardy ales and beers, but that was a small detail, and easily handled.

That vast inventory laid out on the tables could nevertheless be counted by the host, perhaps Harriet herself, if I could drag her away from Amit, who in Chapter 5 of The Book of Alephs had eloped with her on a flight to Kabul, from where they were planning to hitchhike to Europe. Instead, I would have her standing beside the buffet with her hair coiffed and in a neat white uniform, her bosom firm and unsullied by Amit’s filthy touch, pointing at each delicacy and having a fellow-immortal scribe number it. And thus, the size of the buffet, in terms of the number of sentences, would be capped at Aleph-zero.

I was feeling rather pleased with my thought processes, but I had forgotten completely about plates! How was a glutton going to feed? Surely not by walking about grabbing literary canapés and kebabs with his fingers and stuffing them between his swollen lips? No, there would have to be plates and cutlery, so that one could help oneself as one wandered through this food paradise, heaping those delicacies up as needed and then sitting down to eat. What a feast that would be, one that would make even a million Gargantuas burst at their seams, even after vomiting Roman style!

Some minimalist guests might of course be done with their story just after picking a single sentence, a light appetizer like Baby shoes, never worn!, which would make for a nice story, though I had read somewhere that people had doubts as to whether Hemingway actually wrote that. But if a guest had to make do with only a single serving of a single dish, I would have recommended Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, a clever one-sentence novel that I had acquired several months earlier from Nasrullah. I knew, however, that most writers would help themselves to more than one sentence to pile up a story on their plate, with some, being unable to control their verbose appetites, returning to the table for more.  

The driver was singing a Bollywood song now, thumping on the handlebars as if they were tablas or bongos. I was in such a good mood that I wanted to hum along, but I couldn’t recognize the lyrics, which was unusual for me. I was ravenous now, and reminded myself that stories were food for the soul. I tried to explore in my mind what the world of all possible stories might be like. What shape would that entire collection have? Hadn’t Borges written that there were only four kinds of stories, involving either a quest, a return, a siege, or a sacrifice? Others had claimed there were exactly seven kinds of plot, while folklorists had posited hundreds, though there were substantial disagreements as to what constituted a plot. I thought it was all very well to classify all stories, but why hadn’t anyone bothered to simply count them?

I now applied my mind to that question, hoping that my darling Harriet would be pleased with my efforts, for there was more lovemaking with Amit in a seedy hotel in Paris, where they managed to land in Chapter 6. To preserve my sanity, I focused instead on the great feast of literature. The guests would be eagerly making their selections, from the sentences laid out on the buffet tables, hopefully heaping up their plates. The question at hand came down to how many subsets of those magical sentences on offer could be selected.  

The answer, based on what Amit had said in Paris, where they had a heated discussion about mathematics, was the number two raised to the power of Aleph-zero. According to what Amit said in Chapter 7, there were some clever people who hypothesized that this number was the same as Aleph-one, namely the size of the diabolical set of decimals! Harriet refused to go along with it, crying out that there were many intervening infinities before things turned diabolical. There was more to heaven and earth, she declared, than Amit could ever dream of.

She even threw a vase at him, spilling the flowers that he had brought her that afternoon to make up for the fight over their expenses that they had had that very morning. For Harriet was on a strict budget, and the rupees that Amit had swiped from his mother’s bank account had run out.

I was sad to see Harriet angry, but nevertheless happy to observe that they were fighting all the time now, and not just over money, suggesting they were not really made for each other. The welcome change in their relationship made me wonder whether there were in fact only two kinds of stories, those that ended happily and those that did not.

“Isn’t it enough that there are all those other Alephs?” Amit asked, raising his voice. “I thought we had an understanding about them.”

“You mean Aleph-two, Aleph-three, and so forth?” Harriet replied. “How does that help me?”

I wanted to jump in and tell her that they did help her. I would have explained it to my beloved, in case she hadn’t thought of it earlier, brilliant novelist though she was. I would have shown her that the total number of possible stories, of size two to the Aleph-zero, was an infinity that couldn’t be counted, not even by an immortal like her. I knew she would appreciate it, for irrespective of whether that infinity was of size Aleph-one or not, my finding meant that there was hope for literature. There would be new stories that would keep on coming, well beyond the end of time. Any writer worth her salt would draw great inspiration from such a discovery.

In fact, there was even more hope from the other Alephs, for I understood from that last fragment of dialogue in Chapter 7, cryptic as it was, that they were talking about the plates. Once a guest had sampled a subset of sentences in that magic buffet to pile up a story on his plate, it would be a simple matter to take different subsets of those sentences to make sub-stories out of them. Like a child playing with the food on its tray, stabbing at this and that and arranging the items into clever shapes, those sub-stories could be embedded inside the top-level story, and those sub-stories in turn could spawn their own new stories, creating successive Aleph-numbered infinities of embedded stories. My present to Harriet, reaching across vast worlds of story, was the revelation that there was no final Aleph, that the stories, uncountable beyond all reckoning, would keep going on.

The driver’s thumping had become an infernal drumming, pounding in my ears, and he was now driving while facing me with his back to the road, his laughter manic and uncontrollable. In a few seconds or minutes, he was bound to crash into something, and my hopes of returning in one piece to my college would be over. And yet I wanted to believe he had not waylaid me on what should have been a routine journey back. I wanted to strip off the Kathakali mask, to see his face as it actually was, to reveal the true person inside, not the monster that was trying to goad me into madness.

But it turned out that he was just turning to make sure I was OK. He finally dropped me back at my college, with profuse apologies for the diversionary route he had to take on account of all the construction. I gave him the baksheesh he deserved and managed to somehow stagger back to my room and, stumbling over yet another pile of books, threw myself into bed.  

After an experience like that, sleep did not come easy, and I tossed and turned until midnight, haunted by nightmares of devils and enormous numbers, until I finally switched on the light. Balls of paper glared at me from the floor, each like an enormous eye, and on the wall a huge, shining gecko was slowly flicking its tail.

I needed an escape and reached for The Book of Alephs. But it was nowhere to be found. In my dazed state, I must have forgotten it in the auto! I would have to track down that infernal driver and ask him to return it. It would be, after all, of no interest to him. But where could the driver be?

When I looked up again, dawn had broken over Delhi, and I could hear a koel calling somewhere for its mate. It was going to be a beautiful morning, and I had to stop my thoughts from running amok. My best bet was to beat it back to Nasrullah.

After classes were done, I declined an invitation to a game of rummy with the secretary of the debating society, and even to a poetry reading with girls in attendance. I headed back, by bus this time out of concern for my safety.

It was not a pleasant journey, as the same construction project that the auto driver had mentioned had caused the bus to bypass its usual route. We passed the golden mosque called the Sunehri Masjid, where King Nader Shah, invading in 1739 from Persia, watched his troops massacre thirty thousand men, women, and children during the afternoon. Further down was a police station where the British residents exchanged pleasantries while watching the mutineers of 1857 being hanged. Thinking of all those real-world tragedies, I couldn’t help shuddering, longing for a return to the world of story. Finally, I arrived back at Chandni Chowk.

“Welcome back, my friend,” Nasrullah said. “I didn’t expect you so soon.”

“I’ve lost it,” I told him. “I read up to Chapter 7 in the auto, and then forgot it there. It was so stupid of me.”

The Book of Alephs? I’m afraid it is very hard to find. I managed to get it from a contact in Calcutta, who obtained it in person from his cousin in Chittagong.”

“Can you order it? I really want to find out how the story ends!”

Nasrullah smiled and shook his head. I could see that he was being difficult.

I made one more desperate attempt, expressing all the feelings that were surging right then through my heart. “Is it possible to meet this Harriet? She sounds … like quite a character!”

“I am afraid that is impossible, my friend.” Nasrullah calmly took a drag of his hookah, the bubbling sound only increasing my anguish at the loss of the book.

“Why, Nasrullah? Where is she now?”

I waited as he blew out his series of bluish smoke rings, the last one fainter than the rest.

“She died two years ago,” he said. “I believe it was while climbing a mountain in Patagonia.”  

I could not breathe at that moment. It was as if everything I had believed to be noble, the triumph of reason, the eternal story of love, the secrets of mathematics, had come crashing down.

Nasrullah paused, smoothing the motheaten cover of a thick blue book. “I think you might find some solace in this book instead.” He reached out his hand, and I noticed, to my horror, that his right thumb was missing.

“It’s by Ibn Sina,” Nasrullah went on. “Or Avicenna as the Westerners call him. For according to the great polymath’s teachings, Harriet’s soul now abides among the immortals.”

*****

Inderjeet Mani is based in Thailand. His first novel Toxic Spirits (a genre-bending sci-fi thriller now in its second edition) was inspired by volunteer work with hill-tribes in Thailand’s Golden Triangle, the subject of a documentary called The Wrong Light (from Tribeca Films). Mani studied creative writing at Penn (with Carlos Fuentes), Bread Loaf (with Patricia Hampl) and Harvard (with Paul Harding). His latest novel ‘The Conquest of Kailash’ has just appeared as an audiobook. Mani’s six other books (two of which have been translated into Japanese) include The Imagined Moment, on the computing of time in narrative, and other titles are from Oxford and MIT Press. His short stories, essays, and translations have appeared in magazines such as 3:AM Magazine, Aeon, Apple Valley Review, Drunken Boat, Eclectica, New World Writing, Nimrod, PANK, Short Fiction Journal, Slow Trains, WIND, Word Riot, etc., as well as anthologies and newspapers.