A drop of cool sweat prowled down to the tip of his nose as he prostrated before Brahma - the most ancient of all celestial beings - partly in exhaustion but mainly out of worship. His rigorous rite of penance had pleased the Oldest Father, who now stood before him in the flesh.
Summoning a god is not an easy task. It takes twenty-one days of undisturbed meditation, gut-wrenching starvation, and parching thirst. Twenty-one days, rooted still like a tree trunk while chanting hymns within the walls of a focused mind. Such a ritual, when combined with complex breathing techniques and tedious effort, captures the mystical energies of nature and nudges a beam of it to the heavens as an offering for the gods, who are impressed by earnest conveyances of devotion. At the end of it all, one can ask the summoned god for a boon of divine aid.
"Stand up, Nitin."
The order hooked him out of his slump and Nitin found himself face-to-face with Brahma for a second time. The same old ethereal wind ruffled the god's cotton beard, which danced in eloquent synergy with his fluttering garbs of pure white. His head, bare like an egg, glittered under the morning rays and his beaming face, ripe with age, brought warm relief like that of a fiery sun on winter's day.
"You have my gratitude, O Brahma," said Nitin as he pressed his hands together and dipped into a bow. "Forgive me for summoning you again, my lord, but I am in need of your help."
"And what do you want from me this time, Nitin?" It was impossible to lie to such an empathetic voice that was sweeter than song and louder than thunder.
"I just suffered an existential crisis," Nitin explained. The words poured out as a sense of defeat washed over him. "The belief that I once had in my own purpose, it's been laid to waste by doubt. I fear that I'm on a path to spectacular failure and I shudder at the thought of my legacy being damaged forever." He hung his head in shame, fighting back tears of weakness while yearning for a reach of comfort. Was he fit to lead anymore?
"I hear you, but what do you seek from me?"
Mustering some of his pathetic strength, Nitin looked up to stare Brahma in the eye. He wasn't being brave; just recklessly stupid. "Show me. Show me the future that I am about to create." His honor recoiled in disgust, for these words stank of a pitiful admission: that he was a coward in the face of uncertainty. "You can do this, can't you?"
"With pleasure, for you have earned my assistance. But Nitin," said Brahma, with a twist of concern, "I should warn you, such a foresight, it might not be the solution you hope for."
"Still, I have to know what I’m getting into."
Seven years ago, when he was filled to the brim with confidence and as ambition gushed through his veins, he had summoned Brahma for the first time. "Watch over my subjects and ensure their well-being," is what he had demanded. In response, Brahma warned him of a flaming rock that would come crashing out of the sky in eight years to annihilate the continent. It was the ultimate gift for a righteous king; an early warning that would make the difference between defeat and survival of his people.
But he was not a righteous king, for the boon fell short of his expectations. He had hoped to return to his people in victory with proof of a divine interaction. Instead, he brought home a prophecy of doom that he decided to keep to himself, letting everyone believe that he had simply gone on a pilgrimage.
And about a year ago, he confided in the elder tribesmen about his revelation. Shaken by the cataclysmic words but bound by a decade's worth of trust in their leader, the tribe, upon his orders, began preparations for the exodus. They assembled bigger ships for the voyage into the unknown. They stockpiled copious amounts of supplies and everyone - man, woman, and capable child - was hit with a sparring lesson. But as the days dragged on, the dreaded deadline squeezed harder, and diseases of fear and scepticism spread far and deep. Slogans began to erupt from different corners of his domain, sporadic but resentful in nature.
You can't tell us to leave!
The king is losing his mind!
The gods are angry!
Some wanted to stay back. Some believed that running away would be futile. Dissent had finally grown into a force to be reckoned with and it made Nitin pause for once. He desired nothing more than the blind adoration of his people. Throughout his reign, he’d never given them a reason to raise eyebrows or to frown or to feel let down. In return, he expected their blind loyalty. But as the prophecy ushered in an era of testing circumstances, which tend to disturb the natural order of things, the mighty king found himself lost in sleepless nights. Were there really other shores across the sea? Nitin was certain that Brahma would never lie about things like that, but the tribe had assumed for generations that the world was just a piece of land in endless water. Now, as his subjects surrendered traditional beliefs for their king’s word, his claim to rule was only one failure away from being revoked into exile. He had hoped that Brahma could provide much-needed clarity, and so once again, under the pretence of pilgrimage, Nitin set out to acquire a boon.
"Very well," said Brahma as he floated over to rest his thumb on Nitin's forehead.
A blink later, the both of them were shrouded in gentle mist. The ground was buried beneath clumpy, white deposits. Nitin tried to grab some, but his hand, empty like smoke, simply wafted through the material. "It's ice," said Brahma. "Over here, the cold that usually befalls mountaintops stretches across the plains in winter. Frozen raindrops fall from the skies. Rivers and, at times, even the sea tend to freeze."
A gloomy village lay up ahead with its clumsy structures of rough-hewn rocks and jagged wood. There was a remarkable absence of gardens and greenery, save for stunted shrubs and sickly trees with too many bare bones for branches. As they approached the perimeter, Nitin stumbled in shock; he spotted a man, garbed from head to toe in animal hides, chopping up the remains of a deer. A tree stump served as the butcher’s meat table amidst a scattered mess of splintered bones, bloodied fur and slimy guts. Sensing the king's dismay, Brahma said, "The tribe has had to adjust for survival, Nitin. Food is now the fruit of heavy toil, and when there is no way to farm it, it must be hunted." A mother and her child, shivering underneath hideous attire of their own, came to pick up one of the deer's majestic limbs. Watching them scurry off, Brahma continued, "Hunting protects the children from hunger and it provides fur too, for warmth. Should these humans starve and freeze to death in the name of tradition?"
"No. But there's something off about all of this." Ghostly and unnoticed, Nitin streaked through various sections of the settlement, paying close attention to the pedestrians and their drooped faces, cracked skin, and weariness. Nothing made sense. "I don't understand, why haven't I done anything about this? My people, they're eating meat, wearing animal skins, suffering the cold…" Surely, he would have summoned a god for help. "I want to see what I'm doing to ease their pains. Where am I?" He turned to Brahma for directions.
"I'm afraid you aren't here, Nitin."
"You are dead. In fact, you didn't even sail across with your tribe. You died before the Departure, in the motherland itself."
"I died?" How could it end like this? “And my people, they still left-"
"Out of respect for their great king's last wish. They might be cursing you for it out of ignorance, but your decision saved the tribe from extinction. That is your legacy."
“Why don’t they sail back home to see if doomsday did strike?”
“Winter set in a few weeks after they’d docked and it’s been going on for months. The ships were stripped for wood.”
"No…" So fate continued to play its wicked tricks, as usual. To make matters worse, Nitin felt more disheartened than ever.
The vision ended. "I did warn you," Brahma said, his thumb still stuck to Nitin's forehead. "But, if it's of any help, do know that the future is not set in stone. What I took you into, that is but one of the many possibilities. Go back, lead your people to their next adventure. Who knows, you might even sail with them into a different land, one of sunshine and fertility, just because the winds start blowing differently tomorrow. A lot is left to chance, and its randomness is as much of a mystery to us as it is to you mortals."
Nitin's spirits soared. "If there are many possibilities, then maybe a large rock won't crash out of the sky this time." He wanted to believe so because the plan of sailing away to a new life was revealing itself to be too much of a nuisance.
"Some things are more certain than others," retorted the god.
“But honestly," Nitin continued, "my tribe would never want to live like that. That’s not us. We're not barbaric, and we never ought be.”
Brahma’s thumb grew heavier. "Do you want to see what happens if you decide to call off the Departure?"
Before he could even reply, Nitin was striding towards the familiar walls of his village. Although the people had gathered to welcome his return, they were also eager to hear his decision, hopeful that their king had had a change of heart after his solitary pilgrimage. Maybe he had found a reason to believe that there wasn't going to be an apocalypse. And their jubilation was wild as Nitin called off the Departure. Toothy smiles surrounded him; grateful arms pounced forward to brush the Alpha.
The sky sank into the colors of a starry night. The tribe gathered in revelry around a tall bonfire. The seasonal harvest was bountiful, nothing short of a blessing, a vindication of their decision to stay, and it called for celebrations. The air was thick with flavors of a homely feast and cries of cheers for the king rang abound. Nitin surveyed the celebration from afar, perched on a raised throne and lightheaded with satisfaction, certain that the decision to stay was the best he'd ever made. This was where everything was meant to be. Here, everything just felt right.
He lifted his gaze to the heavens, scouting for clouds as claps of thunder shook from above, but the star-studded night sky was naked. There was an odd twinkle though, and its yellow glow, much brighter than the other stars, slowly grew into a distinct, circular shape. One after another, the normal stars were doused in its fiery light. The faint rumbling of the sky gradually transformed into a roar that filled hearts with dread. Even though it appeared that the sun was making an untimely visit, the villagers knew that the fiery rock approached with prophesied doom. Nitin looked across to his people. They gawked back, afraid but eerily calm, with quivering lips and sparkling eyes, which knew that doubting their wise king's premonition had been a grave mistake. One by one, they bowed in a final show of fidelity, their last wishes humbly longing for his forgiveness.
Brahma lifted his thumb and drifted backwards. Nitin plopped dow into the dirt, overwhelmed by a crowd of emotions and trembling from the rather intimate encounter with doom. Huffing, he rose to his feet like a clumsy toddler.
“The giant, burning rock from the void.”
"No!" Nitin shook his head. "I was talking about my people." Their ultimate act had pulled a few of his heartstrings, but what mattered the most was that his legacy, rather than being tainted, was about to go out in a blaze of glory. It was selfish of him to cancel the Departure, but it was also what the people wanted. And why should he pursue an exodus that either begins with his own death or puts him on a path to be overthrown on account of bad weather. “Can you stop it?”
“The burning rock? I don’t know, and I don’t intend to find out,” snapped Brahma. "I'd imagined that the doomsday vision would open your eyes, Nitin."
They glared at each other until Nitin gave up. He staggered away towards a nearby stream.
“I’ll summon another god,” he said with his back to Brahma.
“Gods are not allowed to attempt such grand feats.”
“Then we mortals will figure out our own way. Better to die trying than to run like cowards.”
“Better for the tribe or better for you?” Brahma’s words stank with disappointment. “Do as you wish." The god started to slip out of sight, his form dispersing like windblown sand. "Don’t try to summon me ever again.”
Nitin turned around and asked, “Is there a future in which I lead my people across the sea?” Birds chirped, the stream rushed, and the leaves whispered but Brahma remained silent as a shadow.
And then he spoke. “You are not fit to lead.” And then he was gone; his parting words bitter like poison, with clarity.