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Archive for October 21st, 2013

 

(The Tower of Mists is the sequel to The Fox Spirit of the Tiger Caves where Wang and Lung are the central characters. They are identical twins and each complementing the other like a pair of chopsticks. One sets up the pranks and the other sets every thing in order once the prank is pulled off. There is a pirate who also figures in the Sword of Osman Bey.b) 

 

Book -1

A Deadman’s Chest

 

Prologue-The dead man

Wang and Lung in the port town of Hungzhou. In the midst of intrigue between two dukes. An empty chest and the unclaimed body of a foreigner.

Prologue

 

The Dead man

 

 


Four weeks before the New Lunar year,one busy morning Wang and Lung arrived in the port city of Hangzhou. They had just come from Shibung and had said farewell to one who shared a part of their youth. They still had another minor detail to attend to. Their uncle ‘Curious’ Lee of the Fudan clan was convalescing in his crumbling family home. It was unhappy times and their respects to the worthy sea captain must be paid. But it cast a certain pall on their already strained cheerfulness.

Even as they stepped out of the junk and walked down the pier they knew there was something wrong. The air they breathed crackled and the throng of peasants was as noisy so many pigs in a poke demanding a hearing. Oh their squeals went overdrive as two mandarins hovered in their line of vision. One cried, “We will rough them up!” and if they did breathe annoyance a little ago there was crackling of fire; Ducking a hail of brickbats about Wang whispered, “ Let us not get involved.” They quickly beat a retreat. They knew in the ensuing riot nothing they stood to gain.
Lung grimaced, “A regular war zone, it looks. Scoot!” They clambered across flailing hands and missiles in all shapes. The knots of men still holding merely swung them about. The sharper the cry went they pushed harder. Only at the point the road cut into the main thoroughfare they found an opening: They ran the gauntlet of flying projectiles and swinging poles to take it. On putting a safe distance they asked a coolie who had sat down to get his breath, “What was all that for?” “The people want their bird’s nest soup.”
Lung looked around and there were several eateries. Each displayed a board, ‘No bird’s nest soup’
The wizened coolie said as if to no one, “ No Emperor Soup ! No wonder it is topsy- turvy at all levels.”
Wang asked, “Emperor Soup? Is it for real?”
Wang didn’t think much of it anyway. The coolie looked at them as though they were some aliens and muttered, “ You don’t know what you have missed.”
Lung sighed and said, “I know what I miss.” “Our youth?” Wang asked as they walked farther. They still missed their past. It was then they realized there was a little matter about their uncle. He was suffering some sort of malady that incapacitated him. It sounded mighty curious. He was out of action and yet one imposter Captain Lee was happily sailing the seven seas and his ship Phoenix was in the news. It didn’t strike them then that he was by an imperial decree the real while their uncle, on whose bumbling ways their mischief always took a shine was languishing. He was indeed a large part of their youth.

Everyone in that section of the city knew Captain ‘Curious’ Lee. A few even escorted the youth to the crumbling mansion where the sea-captain was istalled to fend for himself from further insult to his dignity. The identical twins announced their names to the factotum who still put up a brave face and went in. Quickly he came back with a little more obsequious air to deliver the guests as though ‘on a silver platter ‘to his lord and master.
On a signal he disappeared from the hall.
‘Curious’ Lee brightened up and his wisps of scanty grey stubble of a beard fluttered. The sight of one whose jowls and belly still rippled in unison with the swell of the sea now made the twins look away. Yet he pressed manly his hospitality on the travel weary nephews. For a good measure he groaned even as he forced himself to play straight as before to the irrepressible youth of his nephews. It was dismal. As much as they tried to cheer up their uncle whose Panda-like size had stonewalled their snide remarks in the earlier times brought Wang to ask instead if he intended to write his memoirs. He shook his head and said, he was a man of action and not a scribbler.”
He moped and slowly opened his tale of woe. He began ‘In terms of career he had beached with a leak in the hull.’ From their reckoning the Admiral did not carry anymore weight with the emperor and it’s consequences had settled on his head. The admiral let him languish while one who was the favorite of Duke Wushamao was given his command. He even had his girth and took on his name and the unkindest cut of it all, the command of the Phoenix. It made the uncle tremble with rage and at his impotence.
To the twins his presence brought the image of his mother and his feeble attempts to cheer them was pathetic. It was no go. They raised as if to go. The sea captain stood up and led them to the hall. At the end their uncle said morosely, ‘If you ever board the Phoenix and sail think I am still in control.’ They nodded mechanically and exited.
‘We have a life ahead, for sweet Mercies of Buddha!’ they muttered as they reached the street level. Poor ‘Curious’ Lee was a shadow while the liquid sunshine that hit them stirred up the ever present.
The full weight of their sixteen years had hit them only when they came across the knot of rabble here and there and they could hear it had to do something with the bird’s nest soup. Lung muttered, “I never knew it was worth getting your skull broken up for?” “May be we are not really grown up?” They mentally brushed aside the incident.
‘What path should we take now?’ This was becoming a constant refrain.
Standing in middle of ebb and flow of life around them Wang said rather loud, ‘Carefree youth? Our life was one scrape after another.’ Gritting his teeth he pulled his brother aside and said, “We shall settle down just as Cowrie Shell.”
Lung shook his hold and hissed, “You are prying into my thoughts.”
Wang excused himself. “I didn’t mean getting married. We both shall get around to that when we are ready.”
They shook hands on it and they smiled at each other.
Wang and Lung were like two chopsticks, and inseparable. They looked alike and also thought the same thoughts, well most of the time. While they suffered the pangs of days that were, each was beginning to show a certain individual streak. Recalling the incident at the Two Gorges where they had broken journey to look at a temple perched on the top. Enveloped by mists and the quaintness of the panoramic view that lay at their feet, they had a tiff and it was over soon. Yet Wang knew they were growing apart in some of the things. It was marked when it came to the topic of love. Recalling the love struck bridal pair Wang was sure he was ready for love but Lung was all for waiting till the right one.
“How will you know it?”
“That is my secret.” Lung retorted as they descended. Recalling it Wang felt uneasy. And very ominous. After that occasion they traveled onwards as though nothing had happened. Yet there it was. But it wasn’t a comforting thought.
Sidestepping flocks of geese and pigs, which were being herded by peasants to the market the town breathed life. Lung mused, ‘Life could be so exciting.”
Wang suddenly said out of the blue. “We ought to be excited also, right?” Lung stared at him but said nothing. “Seventeen we shall be soon. What have we got to show for our pains?” he asked Silence . Wang insisted, “Pity we cannot show it when someone wants to know what we have done with our life.” Lung said testily. “ Why should we want to show?” Wang was practical, “May be when we think of finding a bride.” Wang was ready to impart his considered opinion. For didn’t he think it over for a month? A sharp jab at his ribs by the end of a stick sent him reeling. Lung saw the sedan chair and the outrider who had rudely shoved Wang aside. He wheeled around and shot his foot out. It connected the jaw of the fellow and sent him reeling to the ground. Wang saw from his head knot the man was the factotum of a duke. Instinctively his eyes darted to the chair. A duke was seated in his sedan chair glaring at him. Wang tugged at his brother and whispered,”Four to one. Beat it. ”
They quickly took to heels. They plunged into the crowd and sought the safety of an eating-house. They were in the Avenue of the Dancing spirits. While they sat down and ordered for some soup they collected their thoughts. Wang could recall the duke who had a good look of him. He said, “Duke Wushamao has found us. Or me in particular.” Before Lung could fully understand the seriousness of their fix he added, “But why he is here?” He recollected it was his favorite that had usurped the command of the flag ship. Weaving their path through knots of vendors and artisans their concerns were somewhat lessened by what they saw around them. Wang thought he was being watched. He held on to his purse that he carried in the inner tunic.
Suddenly Wang froze. He saw the silent warrior who had played a crucial part in their growing up, and it was an omen. He tugged at the sleeve of his brother and said, “I saw Chuan!”
Lung grimaced and said, “In your dreams!” Lung was sure that Chuan was an excuse for him to escape the future that lay before them. Wang said, “Didn’t we leave Chuan and Blia at the wedding feast as we left Shibung?” Wang asked breathlessly, “What did he tell you then?”
Lung agreed that Chuan was going directly to Hunan. ‘How come then you fancy he would be elsewhere?”
Wang thought Lung was testing his patience. “If he had to be here alone he has a crisis on hand!” As he said that Wang sought out the bobbing figure in his line of vision. The easy stride of Chuan was not to be missed, nor were some men who followed him discreetly at a distance.
He was distracted by Lung who said he had things to do. He said cryptically that he would wait for him at The Four Winds. Lung added,”You cannot miss it. It is where you can order for the Emperor soup.”
Wang didn’t want to miss Chuan so he ran into the throng as though his shirt- tail was on fire.
Lung wanted to taste the bird’s nest soup, the Emperor Soup in particular. He walked in that direction.
3.

Wang was rather morose when he joined Lung who said he was let down. Wang knew it already. He confided in Lung that Duke Wushamao had a bitter rival in Duke Mulberry. Lung said his visit o the Four Winds didn’t give him a taste of heaven but he felt in his bones there was something in their quarrel that made the ‘Emperor soup disappear from the menu?”

You mean he created the artificial scarcity?”

Lung wasn’t sure. Wang suspected the soup was very much part of their rivalry.

The quarrel between two dukes was indeed played for high stakes. The twins had no part in the quarrel between two. Nor did they want to take sides. Yet they had become drawn into it.

Pity that Destiny has other plans,” Lung observed. To this Wang added, “We need to fight as one.”

They agreed, ‘Yes if it came to that.’ Like chopsticks they needed one another.

As they sauntered they saw another eatingplace. Lung looked at his brother who turned to follow him. They went in.

Our life is exciting I ought to say,” Wang saw the waiter hovering about him. He asked for bird’s nest soup. Waiter asked with sarcasm if they were from the backyard of the empire. Wang asked what made him say that. He replied, “We haven’t had bird’s nest soup for almost a year.” He explained the foreign devils were out to give trouble. “They would put a knife in our throats.” In order to silence him they quickly ordered a bowl of lentil soup and some dumplings. As left Wang exclaimed, “ So we have arrived here in the middle of troubles!” The city is breaking apart because they have no bird’s nest soup! The idea seemed preposterous. But they had seen it spilling over onto the streets.

By the time they finished their hefty meal and tossed two copper coins to the bearer and Wang announced they would stay with Chuan.

We shall seek out Mandarin’s Cupcake.” As they proceeded along the dusty lane they sensed were followed. Lung hissed, ‘A spy for the duke, to be sure’

Wang and Luke had not quite lost the penchant for trouble. Trouble was ever at their heels whether they wanted it not.

The Mandarin’s Cupcake was a rundown eatery and anonymity that Chuan desperately required at that moment. It was an inn of lost and desperate souls. Soon they were knocking at the door. A stranger with a simple head knot appeared and waited. Wang held out half of a red lacquer disk to which he produced the other half. The disc had an ideogram that said: Hope.

Quickly a warrior came out from the inner hall where three others still sat on the mat. The twins brightened to see the man who sat facing the three. Chuan was in town and he received them and whispered, “ You haven’t seen those three and do not ask them any thing.” The twins understood. They quickly glanced at them and turned their eyes away.

One thing struck them as odd. All the three had a red sash around their waists and they sat before a wushamao that was torn. It was on a cushion as though a ceremonial object.

Who is dead?” the twins were still wondering as the warriors silently took leave of Chuan who seemed to be like a master of ceremonies. They waited till they were alone with Chuan who explained the situation in few words. They understood from the look in his eyes not to ask any further.

Later after the ceremony Chuan came to them. They were alone in a room.

Late in the night Chuan returned quietly and whispered to them, “ Are you game? We shall see a bit of action very soon.”

The twins quickly got up from their beds and dressed themselves to follow Chuan.

It was a desolate stretch at that time of the night. The twins could see they were climbing on the slope of a hillock that almost jutted into the highway. One end they could see the harbor dotted with lights and there were silhouetted of junks and tall masts. Their gaze was broken by rustle of the bushes and they quickly moved to the spot where Chuan crouched. He whispered, “Keep your eyes peeled to that point.” Wang was curious to know where had the three warriors had hid themselves. In the thick blanket of darkness nothing was visible.

To-who’, ‘to-who’ they heard the signal. Chuan drew his breath. Slowly they could hear tramping of hooves and a sudden movement of feet. Horses whinnied and they heard a pistol shot and suddenly there was a scuffle and a body falling with a thud breaking the silence. One moaned and two were cursing as they scuffled with their assailants. One warrior came up in a couple of bounds while Chuan went out to meet him. The warrior said, “ There is no duke.”

Who shot?”

The warrior looked over the shoulder and motioned Chuan to follow. Chuan could see the carriage and two men who were trussed up. One held the lantern to show the captives and one gave silently the pistol to him. He passed to one of the warriors.

Chuan exclaimed, “ Where is Duke Wushmao?” The prisoner sniggered, “ How do we know?” One of the warriors held up a pistol and said, “ This belongs to a foreign devil. I might as well try on him”. He held it against the temple of the man while the other shuddered, “ The thing will go off.”

That is the idea.” The other warrior said with a short laugh. The first prisoner said with a hiss, “ We are Duke Mulberry’s men.” He warned Chuan of dire consequences since the duke’s men were crawling all over the city. Yes indeed Hangzou belonged to Duke Mulberry.

Chuan meanwhile took a peak at the inside of the carriage and let out a squeal. Standing guard over the prisoners Chuan asked the warriors to comb through the carriage and bring whatever was found there.

Wang and Lung could see from their hiding place the outline of a chest. By the light of the lantern they broke the locks and opened.

Nothing of value except a book and a sheaf of papers.”

Chuan ordered the warrior to take the chest while the other motioned after completing his search of the carriage that there was nothing else.

Chuan collected the pistol and a canister containing shots. We will meet at our place, fellows. The prisoners will find help.” Hardly looking at the captives he ordered, “Now every man to his safety.” The warriors quickly disappeared and Chuan beckoned the twins to follow at a safe distance.

By early morning Chuan woke up the twins to show the contents of the chest. There was a diary that bore the superscription of a name. Pedro Cavallo. Rifling through the book Chuan muttered an oath to say,” The chest should have carried silver worth 3 million. But where has it gone?”

Wang and Lung thought ‘Who got the loot?” Three millions was an astronomical sum and it impressed them. They discussed between themselves possibilities. In the end they picked one as the winner. “So one point for Duke Wushamao. Whose turn next?” Wang asked.

But what interested Lung was, “ How did the chest land here in the first place? Or who brought it here?”

Chuan asked, “ What makes you think it was brought here?”

Look at the design? ” Chuan was impressed to look at the embossings on the chest. The cross was unmistakable.

Chuan had to agree Lung was right. “ Wang asked, “But what brought the foreign devil bring here?”

Chuan nipped their curiosity in the bud. “ This isn’t any game, kids.” He explained that they were dealing with treason. “And it will save you much bother, and even your necks, if you just keep out of this.”

Before Chuan took leave he left a piece of paper in which was written, ‘Inn of the Seventh Serenity.’ Without saying farewell he just disappeared among the crowd of people. Wang scanned the name and tore the paper into bits. Caution was becoming second nature to Wang.

Lung observed, “If we had some three millions in silver we have something to show. ‘They are only seventeen and they are rich, so they will say.”

Wang merely replied, “If.”

Chuan having checked the chest inside out beckoned Zheng Dong the innkeeper and told him to keep it. On second thoughts he added, ‘Leave it in your office and it is a piece of evidence. The League may need to produce it if things go right.’

But there is nothing of value here?’The innkeeper was puzzled. Chuan said ‘I also wonder. But if an empty chest takes a ride from one end of the realm to another we need to ask why.’ It was pure Tao and the box had acquired become a person represented, an evidence! It only remained to find if it spelled evil, or anything else.

4.

Wang and Lung asked the innkeeper where Duke Wushamao was in residence whenever he was in town. The innkeeper scratched his head and said the name was unfamiliar. He suddenly brightened up and asked one who was quietly drinking his tea in corner.

He beckoned the twins to come closer and introduced them to the old fellow. With a smile he said, “ My son works in the palace kitchen of the King Foo Yong. He is a busboy. He is right outside waiting for me to finish my breakfast.”

In a trice he brought his son who bowed to the twins and waited. They repeated the question. “ The duke stays at the palace, naturally”.

When did he come here last?”

Three days ago.”

He had brought a foreign devil from far off lands. He presented him before his majesty the king. It seems there was a letter from the Queen of that land. I know nothing beyond that.” That made sense to the twins. The envoy must have wanted to present the King with the chest full of silver, which was to be the gift from the Queen. But Duke Mulberry must have waylaid the chest and relieved the silver in order to discredit the duke from the realm of Three Pavilions. Or other way round. The matter was getting murkier.

 

Lung had enough. He got up early at dawn. He told his brother that he was ready to seek his chances.

What sort of?” Wang asked incredulously.

Anything that would fit my mood of the moment.” Lung seemed to be his own man. Wang hugged him and they parted. Wang went back to catch up with his broken sleep.

Meanwhile Duke Wushamao got up from his sleep in high spirits. He had played a trick on the duke as well as on the King of Canton. The foreign devil indeed passed for an envoy from the Queen of England.

He called two of his bodyguards and gave the order.

That night a body was thrown into the river Fuchun, which was fished out next morning by some boat people who plied along the river selling their wares.

Li Zhi was the Prefect of Hangzhou. He checked the body and rifled through his pockets and wrote his verdict: death by violence. Probably a Folangji (Spanish or Frank?) Name: unknown.

Of course the Prefect consulted with the Magistrate and they agreed that it was one of those cases that had all the hallmark of being relegated to the list of unsolved crimes.

Still they were puzzled: What was the dead man doing in the Middle Kingdom? Who was behind his death?

Chun Yen who looked after the Secret Service later reported before the Prefect. He bowed and placed papers that described the presence of an envoy from England who had an audience with the Royal Highness King Foo Yong at the Jade pavilion.”

After quickly going over the minutes Li Zhi trembled.

An alliance proposed by the Queen of England.”

What has this got to do with the case?” The Prefect looked uncomfortable.

Chun Yun bowed deeply knowing the gravity of the situation. “ May it please the Reflected Glory of the Emperor.”

Speak up, man!”

Chun Yun said, “ But there was no one from England allowed into our province according to the Foreigner’s registration Act.”

Who was the last foreign devil let into this kingdom then?”

One Pedro Cavallo.” Li Zhi wiped the sweat from his face and waited,

He was in the Fort, a prisoner.”

On whose order?”

Duke Wushamao.” Chun also added, “Under Undesirable Aliens Act article 3.clause 14.”

The Prefect said, “ The case is closed.” And he hastily dismissed the mandarin who ran the Secret Service too diligently for his liking.

After his subordinate was gone he sent his attendant for the sub-prefect who came in a hurry. The Prefect said, “ This is regarding the unclaimed body. Here are the papers.” Handing them over he ordered, “Put the lid on this case. Fix the seal ‘Not to be reopened’. Understand?”

The sub-prefect kowtowed and said, “understood, master.”

He understood to the extent the Prefecture functioned but not to the why a dead man made his superior all in a fluster. Following that time honored tradition of concluding work at the end of a day he said, ‘Banzai,’ and left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On Jan 23 1957 V.K Krishna Menon started delivering a marathon 7 hour 48 minute speech in UN Security Council.Some one wanted to know what is the Malayalam word for that memorable marathon speech In malayalam I can roughly indicate it as a  'vachaka kasarthu' literally meaning 'circus with words'

benny

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Chapter- 3

Captain Kous- Kous Asks A Favor

Captain of the Golden Dawn gives a tip to the Mayor; he also wants the favor returned if he succeeds with the Grand Mufti.

 

It was the month of April.

When the Turkish fleet landed there was a great rejoicing among the Sleepy Heads who had never seen so many ships all together. The ships were moored in the open sea and the Turks came in so many boats to the Bay of Morphou. They awaited their grand mufti to make his entry.

The Sleepy Heads did not see Turks but as so many Santa Claus whom they had only heard of. If those Turks strutted and preened themselves, so much the better said they. They knew in that case their gifts would be handsome too. Being Sleepy Heads they were waiting to be surprised; and they wondered what kind of gifts would come their way. ’What did it matter? If only we got something free!’ Ask a Sleepy Head if Santa were rich he would say without batting his eyelid, “ Of course he is rich. If he is not, can he give gifts?” They were reasonable people.

 

From far and wide people came. The musicians brought their instruments to play loud. They played a cheerful melody and then another. The Sleepy Heads kept on playing their instruments while the crowd watched. They were all the time gawking at the great wealth and richness of their ships. Whereas they were dressed in coarse goatskins and wore clogs, the Turks were all dressed in muslin and calf leather. They were a sight to see. So many hours went by and still the Sleepy Heads kept playing. In the end captain of one of the ships motioned the mayor to come closer. He asked the mayor, “ Say fellow, are they musicians?” The mayor proudly answered “ Yes, they are. Every one of them!” He added, “ They belong to The Sleepy Heads’ Band.”

Captain Kous-Kous commanded the ship the ‘Golden Dawn’. He was a man of medium height and with pleasant features. He looked a little down in the mouth as if he was in pain. He wearily asked the mayor,“ What are they playing?” “ Deadbeat” replied the mayor with a flourish.

Yes, yes, if you say so” the Turkish captain said,“ but are they keeping time?” “ Sure. “ said the mayor airily. “ Watch how the second fiddle tries to catch up with the kettle drum? Normally the drummer wins hands down. Have no fear sire, the fiddler will get to finish it sooner or later.”

I wanted to speak to the mayor. Where is your leader?” “ I am the mayor,” Calisthenics bowed politely. The captain introduced himself.” Captain Kous-Kous at your service. The grand mufti wants to have a word with you.” The Turk said.

The mayor of the Sleepy Heads followed him to the boat and there they went together friendly and chattering of this and that. If two total strangers on their first meeting could so freely talk and put each other at ease any talk of war must seem incredible. Is it not? Why would a nice captain like Kous-Kous want to slash a jolly mayor with his scimitar? Or mayor stick the Turk with a stiletto, which he carried only as a part of his Mayoral office? Had any one asked either of them each would have answered, ’No way!’

The captain let himself easily into the ship and helped the mayor to come in. Before the mayor was let into the suite where the grand mufti sat the captain said to him in a whisper, “ Do not ever look at the turban of his Lordship”. The mayor looked at him somewhat confused.

Why then is he wearing one?”

I don’t know,” the Turk replied, “But I have seen many who have come to grief on account of his turban.”

Is it OK if I laugh to his jokes?” asked the mayor and the sea captain stopped in his stride, “laugh! Never!”

The Turk explained the prince had never laughed and death was to anyone who displeased him. He added, ”If he smiles you have nothing to fear. If he frowns of course it would not be the end. But if he is angry, brother I shall not be there to help you!” The captain seemed nervous as they approached the Hall, which led to the suite of the grand mufti.

Prince Al-Wa’sik was a prince by birth. The mere mention of his father would have made many breathless. His father was none other than Suleiman the magnificent and the present sultan had entrusted the entire operation to his half brother. Selim ‘the Sot’ knew the prince, truly enlightened and pious that he was, did not covet his throne. Still, he had in a matter of precaution given him charge over state affairs, which kept him away from the power center. Thus throughout the year he was fighting wars overseas or negotiating with powerful rulers for the weal of the empire. He had acquired sensitivity from his mother an Arabian princess who safely kept herself out of harms way while the sultana held sway. She had pulled her strings from long distance to preserve him as he rose steadily in his career. He rose in time to be recognized by his sire, who elevated him to the powerful rank of grand mufti. After the death of his father he had kept rising without attracting the envy of the powerful. He was given charge of the Operation Stymie. The captain who briefed the mayor as to the many qualities of prince cautioned him, ” Under pain of death do not make any comment about the shape of his head. Death is for any one who displeases him. Understand?” “What makes his head special?”The captain said,”His head is OK. But his turban. Ooh!” Without stopping in his stride he continued,”Don’t ever stare at the turban of his Lordship.You know what is an onion like. And I have seen many. But you take a look at his turban; what does it bring to your mind, but an oversized onion?”The mayor was impressed. “Oh, brother how terrible! A word like ‘onionhead’ can cost your life, He is all too powerful.”

The mayor nodded. “ Is there something which will please the grand mufti?” He asked feeling a little afraid. “ Oh yes,” said the captain with a knowing smile. “ Tulips are his passion. A mere word will make him break out in goose pimples.” The mayor rubbed his hands as if he knew he could get away. “ My neck is in no danger of being broken.” The mayor said with obvious relief. “ I know of a thing of two about tulips. I am a tulip fancier myself.” The captain felt somewhat relieved, “A tulip fancier ah! What do you know of tulips?”

You have lips. So have I. We have two lips” said Calisthenics grandly. “ That will do.” Kouskous for the first time smiled, “ I am impressed. “ Do you grow tulips around these parts?”

O Brother, Don’t you have eyes?,” the mayor asked, “Look at my lips. How well they fit. Can you imagine me without two lips. They grow well here.”

Before this information could sink in Calisthenics added, “We wet it with our wines and wipe it clean with bread.”

The captain sniffed and said, “ I guess you are right. But I thought tulips were something of a horticultural talking point?” “A point well taken!” the mayor said with a bow. Kous-Kous said, “Fancy meeting a tulip grower here. You have to make an impression on the grand mufti. That is what counts.”

Not my two lips?” The mayor played it up.

Captain Kous-Kous suddenly became nervous and he said, “ He in there,’ pointing to the Hall,’ is very dangerous. His name means Terrible Eyes. There is death in them eyes.” The captain stopped short and turned to the mayor, “Let us be positive. If he is happy with you, Ah, then your fortune is made.” The captain whispered, “ If every thing goes well you can do me a favor.”

Come, ask me?” Calisthenics asked. “Do not forget to say something good about me during the interview. I am waiting for a promotion which is long over due.” He added,“ I Captain Kous- Kous believes in returning the favor. Scratch me I shall scratch your back.”

Oh sure!” The mayor said, ” Consider it as done.”

Captain Kous- Kous was a sea captain and not one blessed with a bright mind. Just the same he had a mind always to help those who needed help. Kous- Kous walked over to the guards who stood before the anteroom. “ The mayor is here.” One of the guards went inside and after a while returned. The captain before he took leave said,” Put in a word for me. Captain Kous- Kous is the name. Remember, on pain of death no mention of the word, Onion Head. That is one word, which makes him mad. Understand?”

At his point the gong struck. Hearing the sudden sound the captain almost panicked. He just made off. The guard motioned the mayor to enter. Before he could recover from his daze he was in. He reeled to step on rich Persian carpets and the sight of the grand mufti made it still worse. He did not for a moment or two know whether he was going or coming. So confused he was. The figure who sat on the carpet at the far end of the suite, with his elbow leaning on a large cushion was fierce and he said, “Enter!” His heart sank a little to realize that he had forgotten that word which he was not supposed to say. It was a long walk and he was careful not to stumble. At every step he was searching his memory for that one word. “Bulkhead? Minion? Or is it Dome? He rattled many words and discarded them all. “Oh no. it may never come back. I lost it.” The grand mufti was fair of form except for his turban, which was unusually large. Quickly he noted that his turban gave his head the shape of an onion head. “ Ah I got it!” Calisthenics exclaimed, “ Onionhead ! That was the word I should not speak on pain of death. The captain said so.” All the way to the platform where the grand mufti sat he kept reminding himself, “I must not say Onionhead whatever happens. Onionhead is the word.”

The prince beckoned him to approach still closer. The mayor did. He bowed politely. The Turk asked him to sit. He introduced himself. “Who are you?” Mayor Onionhead, sire!” The hapless mayor realized his mistake only after the words flew out of his mouth. It was out. ‘Nothing can get it back. Awful.’ The mayor blanched. He dared not look at the eyes of his host. ‘They must be like daggers now!’ Calisthenics shuddered,“ But I am a tulip fancier.” He bellowed with all his might. He thought that by shouting the word ‘tulip’ he might drown the words he had mistakenly said. There fell a dead silence. Then the grand mufti laughed. He laughed so hard that the wooden beams of the hall echoed it. The guards peeped. So did the executioner who had a large broad sword. He was laughing which burst out all at once. A full blown laughter and it shook his lithe muscular princely frame. “ This is a scream,” The Turk said, “ You made me laugh for the first time!”

So this is what it is to laugh?” The Turk asked loud. Being unused to laughter he tried a few more times.” No it does not sound good.” Of course the prince felt laughing but laughing for nothing was not good. ‘Laughter and jokes go together; like horse and carriage!’ the grand mufti mused.

Go on tell me another and make me laugh!” the Turk urged the mayor. “What can an Onionhead do that a coat of paint cannot do? The mayor began.

You tell me, make me laugh, Go on.” The Turk interrupted waving his hand as if he could not wait. The mayor said,” A coat of paint you can peel but you try peeling an Onionhead,” Calisthenics took time out and added the punch line,” you are sure to lose your head.” Did that make the Turk laugh? Of course he laughed harder and he almost doubled with it till he thought his stomach would burst. He thought laughter was all the time hiding within. He thought it was not his fault he never could laugh. ‘Only if I had heard something funny before’. He was in a wonder.

The mayor was sure enjoying himself. “What is the difference between my bald spot and my arm?”

You tell me,” the prince said straightening up.

The mayor could see the prince was in a good mood looking forward to let himself go. Showing his crown Calisthenics said,” On my head there are no split ends but,” shaking his hand loosely he continued,” my arm has a split end!” he said. “Ho Ho your fingers!” The Turk got the joke. The mayor stopped. He thought too many jokes in one go were as a no go. So he waited now for the Turk to say something.

The grand mufti asked finally, ” Do you sleep with all these jokes?” “Who wants to go to bed with a bagful of jokes?” Calisthenics asked, “ Give me a good night’s sleep and it is in the bag!,” He said snapping his fingers “just like that!” The mayor thought it all a dream. He pinched himself to make sure. It was real. He made the grand mufti laugh for the first time. He could not believe it. “Onion head, uh,uh” The Turk rolled again in mirth. He said,” My physicians said it was impossible”. He excused himself to inform his wives who were in another part of the ship.

When the Turk had gone a fellow in dirty clothes and with a clean-shaven head adorned only by a felt cap peeped in. Looking around to see that the grand mufti was out he entered boldly and said, “Who are you?” “Mayor Calisthenics. And who are you?”

Mullah Murad Mahoud, “ said the stranger,” I wasn’t expecting interruption.”

That makes two of us.”

You know who I am?” he glared.” I can smell your presence.“ the mayor said under his breath. The newcomer asked,“ Where Grand Mufti Al- Wa’sik has gone to?” “I have no idea. He did not tell me.” Mayor Calisthenics replied.

Did he go in long strides or with short steps?”

With a laugh he went.” Calisthenics replied.

Laugh? Impossible!” Mullah Murad was sure, “ He has no use for laughter. He is a Turk!” The mullah was angry. “Laugh once, Allah hears you O stranger, But laugh twice, you are committing blasphemy. So watch out!” Hearing footsteps he hurriedly disappeared.

The fellow came second time leading a black bear and the mayor was taken aback at its size. “ The bear is under my care. I can make him do what I will!” He had never seen such a beast. “ Can you make the beast laugh, O mullah?” “ What for?” “So I may grin and bear it. Laughing is forbidden, no?”

At that point a rat gallivanted across the carpeted hall and the mayor thought it had no sense of respect; Mahoud saw him too and he said, ”Kill him!” The next moment the bear just reached out its muscular and hairy paw to dispatch the unfortunate rat to the next world. The mayor shuddered to confront the evil glint in the eye of the mullah. He said, ”All I need to give him a command and it is done!” The mayor knew it was a veiled threat. From that point Calisthenics ignored him.

To his relief the grand mufti came in and it surprised the guest to see the way the mullah changed over. The prince told him something and hastily he left the hall with the lumbering giant. Conversationally Al-Wa’sik said the bear was his pet. “I call him No Malice. You don’t care for pets?” “Of course I do.” Said the mayor with a serious face,” Except when I am in a pet.” His host laughed politely. The mayor did not mention about the little drama the animal played in his absence.

Quickly the two got to converse. The prince spoke about his tulips and the mayor was passionate about trekking. Calisthenics realized the prince was hard pressed for time. He was called up again by a guard, who came in and whispered something into his ears. The prince first frowned and smiled weakly to say,” This is a matter of compassion. Allah requite me kindly for this.” He got up and left.

After half an hour he came back. He had the look of a man who had earned his place among mankind by such deeds as worthy of a human being. He said,” Two young boys were almost at the point of drowning. One of my men saved them; and they are even now being attended to. By my personal physician.”

Calisthenics asked if they could speak. “At least their names?” The grand mufti replied,” I will lead you to them and you can satisfy yourself and may be your presence would be of comfort.” The mayor straightaway followed his host into the private chambers of the prince.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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