Conjunctions:76 Fortieth Anniversary Issue

Mr. Ashok’s Monument
The summer of 20—, when all this strangeness struck, was a hectic season in New Delhi. It was particularly busy in the Department of Symbolic Meaning, which is situated in the Ministry of Culture, National Identity, and Historical Interpretation. That year I was serving as Undersecretary of Historical Records, working beneath a Symbolic Meaning official named Mr. Satya Mishra, whose first name means Truth. Mishra-Sir, as we knew him, had not been in the office much of late, as he had been traveling the country in order to improve public confidence in the nation’s ITIHAS (GLORIOUS HISTORY). Mishra-Sir had on his person at most times a number of ITIHAS-Preservation Campaign pamphlets, which he distributed wherever he went. The pamphlets, translated into regional languages, read something like: IS IT TRUE THAT OUR ITIHAS (GLORIOUS HISTORY) IS IN DANGER? and included instructions on WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER AN UNPRESERVED/DAMAGED/ AT-RISK ELEMENT OF ITIHAS (GLORIOUS HISTORY).

The campaign was rolling on with so much forward motion as to imply predestination. Temple priests, chai sellers, schoolteachers, rickshaw drivers, common men and women alike were seeing imperiled elements of the nation’s ITIHAS everywhere. ITIHAS: often personified in the pamphlets as a boulder-built man with a viripotent head of hair. Our hero, ITIHAS, is shown clambering out of a hole in the dusty ground while a spindly male villager resembling Gandhi-ji (oversized spectacles, white dhoti) proffers his cane. It is a very nice image that spreads the message that even a feeble-looking villager can help our eminent ITIHAS rise from obscurity.

If anything sells in our nation, it is a story of heroes, and of history.

But pamphlets are insufficient for educating the illiterate, the apathetic, or those glued to their phones. Mishra-Sir kept an eye open for something else. Signs or symbols with greater reach.

That summer of 20—, our department had taken calls responding to, among other things:
  1. A footprint known to belong to the monkey god Hanuman as he crossed from the southern tip of the subcontinent to Sri Lanka to rescue the captured Sita, as in the Ramayana—now enclosed in a glass case in its forest setting.
  2. A shard of elephant tusk belonging to the beast whose head Lord Shiva eventually placed on his son, Ganesha. Currently under examination by a zoolorchologist working closely with the Department of Symbolic Meaning.
  3. A slab of rock containing etched annotations believed to be the work originally discovering the number zero—before the Arabs exported the concept west—now displayed in the entrance hall of the mathematics building at IIT-Kanpur.
  4. Three drops of confirmed holy water from the ancient river Saraswati.
  5. The wheel of a Vedic-era flying chariot, found wedged behind an Audi dealership in Gurgaon.

But most curious of all, that summer, was the business of Mr. Ashok Jagtap and the sacred E— caves.


I am not a famous man. I am merely a record keeper, one of many bureaucratic stewards of ITIHAS. We have been, for many years, making and remaking the country, perhaps unbeknownst to you. We write the textbooks and obsessively chronicle the history that was quashed by years of colonial rule. Of late, we also liaise with Mishra-Sir’s public relations officers, whose job increasingly requires them to understand and propagate an accurate and communally inspiring story of our collective past. We leave the messaging to them, but we give them essential material.

My relevance to the tale that follows begins with the interest I took in Mr. Ashok’s case. The morning he changed was a morning that history—that great swathe of meaning that precedes us—revealed itself as the living, still-present creature our prime minister has always sworn it to be. So, let us begin in the small room where Ashok Jagtap lived, alone, having recently been left by his wife.

Mr. Ashok slept on a mattress on the floor. His room had one window, and a mirror barely wide enough to frame one’s face, which hung beneath a leaky roof. After several monsoons, it had rusted so heavily that anyone who sought his reflection would find himself staring at a creature with a complexion the color of exhaust smoke. The mirror is one explanation for why, when he woke on that hot, dry May morning, Mr. Ashok did not initially see what he had become.

That day, he got himself ready, as always, to go to his venerated job as the best English-speaking tour guide at the holy caves E—. “Mr. Ashok,” by the way, was how he introduced himself to foreigners, as he felt he could not force them to call him Ashok-ji, using our honorific.

On that morning in May of 20—, Mr. Ashok did register certain elements of the change: he ascertained a stiffness in his joints, and caught sight of his palms and knuckles, which were a horrid, grayish color. He felt very heavy. But Mr. Ashok needed and had never been given spectacles, and the lights in his room were out, as he had not paid the bill, so he could not see the extent of the discoloration. Mr. Ashok had been ill for weeks—coughing, aching, sleeping poorly if at all. He attributed the new weight and ache to the pain of his wife’s absence. My body, he thought, wants me to die.

With effort, he made his way down the stairs, past the kirana shop above which he lived, and found that the eyes of the neighborhood were upon him. People were still gossiping about his wife’s departure a few weeks prior. While he was at work, she had hopped on the back of her sister’s bicycle in broad daylight, like the star of some Hindi serial. It had happened just after the NGO people passed through town, with their little white tent that taught women all the things their husbands should require permission to do. A man could not even kiss his spouse without her yes, Mr. Ashok’s wife had said to him, using the voice a child uses to recite times tables, when she returned from the tent.

Let the neighbors stare! He had a job to do at one of the most important monuments in the nation.

Arriving at the E— caves, he saw his young friend Babu, the balloon seller, leaning against the front gate, his bloom of pink balloons bobbing above him. Mr. Ashok squinted. Babu gave him a puzzled look. Mr. Ashok bent over a few feet in front of the gate, struggling to take full breaths. His body felt strange in other ways: the slight paunch in his belly did not fold in on itself as it normally would have, and his ribs, which had been feeling rigid for some weeks now, rested stoically within him, like a heavy block.

Then, with his face closer to his hands, Mr. Ashok saw his skin for the first time that day.

His first thought was: it is extremely unlikely.

He straightened. Babu stood in front of him.

“Ashok-ji,” said Babu. His pink balloons were blown up so large that the white polka dots they bore looked pallid, resembling a skin infection. “You’re looking very sick. Actually, you’re looking a little like a statue.”

Mr. Ashok was staring, transfixed, moving his eyes from his fingers to the wide splay of the basalt cliffs, home to the E— caves, behind Babu and back again. In the center, just behind his hand, was the intricately carved dome of the Kailasa Temple, the centerpiece of the caves. On either side of it stretched primitive Shiva temples, spare ascetics’ meditation cells, towering figures of Prince Siddhartha, erotic couplings of everyday people and of gods in tantric sex positions, all of which Mr. Ashok showed visitors each day. Above the caves, the sun beat down; all around sprawled drought-yellowed wheat fields, tamarind and neem trees.

Mr. Ashok was looking at these caves—at the rock that comprised them—and then again at his own body, and he thought again, more forcefully, that it was impossible . . .

“Yes,” Babu was saying, circling him. Babu reached out a fist. Mr. Ashok would have flinched if he were able to feel the smaller muscles in his face, but Babu was not coming to hit him, only to knock on Mr. Ashok’s shoulder as though he wished to be let into the mystery of the situation. The sound of Babu’s knuckles rapping on Mr. Ashok’s body made the older man feel distant. “Yes,” Babu said again. “Very clearly, you are made of stone today.”


For the reader unfamiliar with the sacred caves where Mr. Ashok worked, I will provide some background. Some five hundred years after the birth of Christ, a number of conquering Hindu rulers decided to build some holy temples. Putting to work their artisans and prisoners of war, they sculpted gods and goddesses into the rocks; years later, other parts of the cliffs were turned into meditation cells by Buddhists. For a time, the caves were sites of prayer, ritual, and peace.

Then, in the era of the British Raj, the caves were forgotten. Fringe types recalled them—poets and bards, historians like myself. The sacred E— caves wished, you might say, to be remembered, for they whispered to anyone who came within earshot, as though they were begging to have their stories set down.

However, of late, as the nation has decided to stop forgetting its history, and in fact has begun remembering with a vengeance, the sacred caves at E— became important, not only to us at the Department of Symbolic Meaning, but to the common people, who were (as the prime minister has more eloquently explained), made of history, of ITIHAS, for the past runs through our veins and keeps us alive.

I had one crucial interview with Mishra-Sir before he hired me, after I passed my narrative patriotism polygraphs. Mishra-Sir asked after the source of my interpretive convictions. Breathing deeply, I told him of my aunt and sister, and the small bomb blast in the marketplace. My sister was very small. The two of them had gone to the market with the maid and the Kashmiri driver. “I understand,” Mishra-Sir said instantly. “That driver believed in the wrong history, isn’t that it? And he blew everything up over this symbolic confusion.”

I found myself weeping before my new superior. A terrorist who lusted after the wrong map. The symbols and the signs mattered. Mishra-Sir is a great man. He studied economics, government, history, and politics abroad, in America and in England, returning home upon the prime minister’s election. He told me, during that meeting, of the moment he chose his homeland over that much-lauded abroad. The prime minister, he said, offered a better, stronger story of the nation.

Mishra-Sir spoke too of our mandate. There is much magic and myth dotting the national landscape, he said, waving in peon after peon bearing cups of chai. Mishra-Sir and his clerks made the difficult interpretive choices. Some stories confused citizens spiritually or morally—like that fabricated map that killed my sister—while others renewed public confidence in the nation’s glorious history.

I noticed after I started, though, that despite Mishra-Sir’s clerks’ high marks on the civil service exams and stunning scores on the narrative patriotism polygraphs, they still often erred. For instance, was the footprint found in the southern forest really Lord Hanuman’s, or had it been carved into the ground by a group of enterprising villagers seeking some pilgrim-tourist traffic? Or what of the prime minister’s claim that our nation had birthed plastic surgery—was our department to cite as proof the evidence of early medical practices a thousand years before Christ, or were we, instead, to directly affirm the prime minister’s argument that Lord Ganesha had received his elephant head via the first operation in history?

When the employee failed to discern, Mishra-Sir, with his peerless intuition, was called in; the answer, he often said, in determining whether something was truly an ITIHAS artifact, was one he borrowed from that time studying American jurisprudence.
“I know it,” he would say, “when I see it.”


“Not stone precisely,” Babu amended, as he guided Mr. Ashok, who had fallen silent with shock, to the shady spot beneath a scrubby neem tree where the Hanuman langur monkeys swung lazy and low from the branches. “Stone, after all, cannot walk and talk and move.” He said this as if it ought to give Mr. Ashok some comfort.

But what if he suddenly transmogrified, becoming a true statue at any moment?

“Shoo!” Babu shouted, clapping at a gray monkey trying to perch on Mr. Ashok’s head. The fluff of the creature’s tail drooped in front of Mr. Ashok’s eyes. He could not feel the texture of the primate’s fur, or the scratch of its claws.

“Ask me,” Babu said, “you look much better in stone than in flesh. Bit ugly you were before. Now people will think you’ve got a more serious air.”

Then Mr. Ashok had an urgent thought. He needed to know if all of him had turned to stone. He directed Babu to stand behind him, using the balloons as a bulky curtain while Mr. Ashok made his investigation. He stretched the elastic band of his gray slacks in front of him, stuck his hand down, and was met by a smooth, rocky pelvis and upper thighs but a fleshy penis and testicles.

Mr. Ashok may have had a higher tolerance for otherworldly logics than the reader does, and so he accepted what he found: that on this morning, all of him save his genitalia appeared to have turned to stone. What it meant he could not say for sure, but he had his job to do. Duty persisted.

He readjusted his pants and turned to the morning visitors filtering through the front gates. Schoolgirls decked out in blue-and-white salwar kameezes, their plaits running long down their backs, followed their young female teacher to the slippery stone steps sculpted centuries earlier. A group like this would follow the numbered route prescribed by the government’s ITIHAS pamphlets for schoolchildren.

On a normal day, Mr. Ashok stood hawking himself: “English-speaking tour guide?” On a bad day, Babu helped: “Free balloon with English tour, very good, yes, which country from?”

On a good day—there were not many—a few foreigners would come take photographs with the caves and with Mr. Ashok himself, and a pretty foreign wife might knock her shoulder against his and he might feel the heat of her near him. On one of those good days, Mr. Ashok might receive a tip, and in the days before the NGO came around, Mr. Ashok might go home warm with the tip, knowing that a few more such days might allow him to buy his wife a new sari, and hold it against her skin, and then they might do their man-wife business with the fervor of his generosity driving them together.

“It’s going to be a good day, Ashok-ji,” Babu said now, because the visitors were stopping, pausing, lifting their cameras. “Look at all the business your change will bring!”

“Is that man dressed up like a statue?” an Asian woman said, halting, pushing her sun hat up as she leaned close to Mr. Ashok.

“Isn’t that paint bad for him?” her husband, a white man, said, placing a firm hand on his wife’s elbow. “Step back, Eunice. It may be poisonous.”

“Picture, picture, picture!” cried their son.

“Balloon?” Babu said. “Free balloon, with English-speaking tour guide!”

“Good morning,” Mr. Ashok said, hearing his voice emerge more somber than before. “Welcome to the very famous caves at E—. Which country you’re from?”

Without answering, the man lifted his son up and held him in the crook of his arm; his wife lifted their selfie stick, snapping the photograph quickly: three foreigners, the strange man dressed as a statue, and the bobble of a pink balloon in the corner of the frame.


As the day went on, Babu fetched Mr. Ashok a chai (which trickled down and out of his mouth, as his teeth and lips and tongue and uvula were all stone as well), waved balloons at potential customers, and maintained a merry disposition, as he had when he nursed his ailing kaka. But privately Babu was wondering whom he could call on his friend’s behalf. A priest? A doctor? Then Babu’s mind fell on the political factions that had recently taken up residence in his slum on the outskirts of A—, where, in the lead-up to the next election, the Party had come through bearing rice, distributing pamphlets for the literate, painting graffiti on the walls for the illiterate. A man had introduced himself as the Party’s ITIHAS liaison and explained the importance of reporting strange occurrences.

He had the man’s number in the phone he had saved months to purchase. While Mr. Ashok stood baking in the sun, standing, well, stone-still, Babu crept behind a tree. The ITIHAS liaison answered on the third try. He listened to Babu’s description of the event carefully, then burst into laughter. Babu heard him call someone else over. The man put his colleague on the phone and Babu told the whole story again. The laughter recommenced. On the other end of the line, it seemed the Party members were preparing to call over a third person. Babu hung up. He took a short walk around the caves, to see if he could find the couple who had snapped the photograph of Mr. Ashok. These odd foreigners had proof. They might be of some help.


That day, Mr. Ashok attracted a European couple, who were so busy putting their hands all over each other’s hands that they seemed untroubled by Mr. Ashok’s stone composition. The woman wore shorts. The man touched her hips, her waist, her bum. They did not even look titillated when Mr. Ashok brought them to his favorite cave, the one featuring the various incarnations of Parvati—Lord Shiva’s beautiful consort—and their various naked breasts.

“Nothing dirty, you see,” Mr. Ashok said to the woman.

“Your religion is very modern,” the man said stiffly.

Mr. Ashok tried again: “It is all natural. All about the cycle of birth and death, creation of life and end of life.”

He did not want to escort this unimpressed couple to the edge of this cave, where the most erotic carvings lay. On the single occasion his wife had consented to come on a proper tour with him, he had pinned her here, against part of the unfinished cave, the uncarved stone . . . and though her eyes had widened when he expertly maneuvered her petticoat and though she at first felt like sandpaper, it was one of those rare times when she released into him. No, Mr. Ashok did not take these Europeans to that corner.

The woman grew dizzy as they emerged from the Parvatis’ den, and the man decided to rush her to the air-conditioning. He pressed a tip of one hundred rupees into Mr. Ashok’s stone hand and said, “You are very committed to your costume, Mister,” at the feel of the rock on his flesh.

Alone, Mr. Ashok wandered back to that part of the cave where the depictions of Parvati ended. The cave’s ceiling dipped low, turning from man-made temple back to original cliff. Just there, at that border between the carved and the uncarved, was one more Parvati—Mr. Ashok’s favorite. There was a dispute about this Parvati. Some said she was not at all divine, but rather a depiction of the wife of one of the artisans, who adored his partner so dearly that he wished to sneak her in among the goddesses. She lacked the typical Parvati indicators; her son Ganesha was nowhere near her knees, and she had only three arms, none of which held a conch or rosary. There was no cow in sight, no husband loitering. She was alone, neither mother nor wife nor lover, hands splayed as though taking in the sun or dancing to faraway music. Her face was incomplete, and featureless.

He laid his forehead against hers, stone on stone.

Down below, Babu was fumbling with English as he tried to explain to the foreigners that he needed the photograph of Mr. Ashok. The trouble was how to get it to him. Babu, like many of the poor of our nation, had a smart phone—it is easier to get a phone than a working toilet—but he had no more data. He negotiated with one of the guards to receive the photo on his behalf. The foreigners, looking skeptical, sent the image and departed. The guard turned to Babu and grinned toothily. He held out a palm. Defeated, Babu paid him ten rupees to send the photograph to the ITIHAS official.

As soon as Babu left, the guard began blasting off the photo of Mr. Ashok to everyone he knew. It was one of those things one simply had to share.


Now I must let you know of Mr. Ashok’s misfortune regarding his living situation. On that first day, when Mr. Ashok returned from the caves, he found the kirana store owner, who was also his landlord, packing his things in a soggy cardboard box. The neighbors had reached a decision about the karmic meaning of his change, and they did not judge it positively.

“You’ve been cursed,” the owner said. “Can’t have you bring bad luck on the rest of us.”

So out Mr. Ashok went, carrying his box. He tried to sleep on the bus-stop bench that night, but could not lie comfortably, and so he sat upright, struggling to shut his eyes.

In his youth, Mr. Ashok had ridden buses through the rural parts of the state to the city of A—, where he found a job sweeping an English tuitions center. He listened in on classes and made his way through the government examinations to become an official tour guide (paying a bribe, borrowing money from unsavory people, to have his educational credentials forged). And so he became a respected man. A guide. A government servant. A servant of history.

He used to see the girl who would become his wife walking each morning to her job as a maid. She had almond-shaped eyes and walked with a limp, which made her attainable. They married quickly.

Their first fight came when Mr. Ashok agreed to drink alcohol— the only time he ever touched the stuff—with Babu after work one day, and admitted to her, through moonshine breath, that he had forged his credentials. She burned his papers that night and left a small pile of ash next to his head as he slept. He did what he felt was necessary in order to keep the architecture of the union intact and hit her across the jaw with as much confidence and as little force as he could manage.

Mr. Ashok believed in duty and karma and yet had escaped the life for which he seemed predestined—a chaiwalla in a small town. For this reason, he admired the nation’s prime minister, himself a former tea seller. But unlike the prime minister, Mr. Ashok never aspired to be a great man. All he wanted was a son, and his wife failed to provide him with that. Once she had even told him, in shrill singsong, that she prayed he’d fall sterile so she’d never have to bear his children, for he was a monster, for she hated him, for God would see his heart of stone and punish him—and so he had begun to strike her more repeatedly, to shut up all the nonsense.


In the end, Mr. Ashok could not sleep at all on the bus-stop bench, suffused as he was with these thoughts of the past. His eyes remained open as though they had been carved that way. He watched the sun come up over the smoggy city of A—, the familiar burnt dawn. In the light, he carried his box of possessions to work, moving even more slowly than he had the day before, finding his knees reluctant to bend. At the caves, he kicked his box beneath a hedge, hidden from the guards.

That morning, a number of reporters from Marathi-, Hindi-, and English-language newspapers arrived at the caves and asked Mr. Ashok wild, intrusive questions. Did he believe he had done something to offend some spirit of the caves? Or did he see himself as somehow united with this historical space? Was he putting it on, having a laugh at everyone’s expense? (One reporter from The Hindustan Times grabbed him by the wrist and shouted: “It’s stone all right!”, thereby igniting a debate on the nature and composition of stone between a few science writers who had been sent to try to explain how the statue man could walk and talk.)

The loaded question arose too of whether all of Mr. Ashok was made of stone, and finally a female with an impertinent button nose from NDTV, said, “We’re asking about your member, sir.”

At that, Mr. Ashok lost his temper. He was touring a couple from Singapore, whom Babu had elbowed through the crowds to deliver, and he alarmed them by shouting, “I’ll bring all of these to life and chase you out of here!” He pointed at the long row of armed bodhisattvas, enlightened beings, who surrounded the meditating Buddha so as to ensure no one disturbed his meditation. “Can you do that?” the reporters demanded. “Prove it! Show us!”

The worst: Mr. Ashok was seeking relief in the shade, having scared away the Singaporeans, when the NDTV reporter found him to ask another bald question: “I went by your old house this morning and learned from your neighbors a few things about your relationship with your wife . . .” and then proceeded to read out a number of offenses from her notepad in the same recital voice that Mr. Ashok’s wife had used when returning from the NGO—“Do you have any comments about that? About whether you think your change might be, say, a comeuppance?”

“Who told you people about me?” Mr. Ashok demanded, and the NDTV woman said something about the Internet. She used the word viral. She held up an image on a fancy phone. It took Mr. Ashok a moment to realize the picture was of him. If his tear ducts had not also been petrified, he might have wept.

He made himself as still as possible and did not move for the rest of the day, not even when the guard who began the virality passed him by, still chuckling, and said, “When your little balloon-selling friend gave me this news yesterday, I almost did not believe him. But it’s true. Now we will see some fun, won’t we, Ashok-ji? You will be very good for business.”

Mr. Ashok wished even more that he could squeeze out a single tear. His own Babu had done this.


Mishra-Sir had been busy with matters in Kashmir, where history is plentiful as land mines. But the day Mr. Ashok Jagtap went viral, Mishra-Sir’s attention turned to the E— caves.

“What do you make of it?” Mishra-Sir asked when he called me into his office. He had come to trust me, perhaps because I kept my head down and spoke little.

It was a tense time in the Department of Symbolic Meaning. Just recently an assistant had been hauled off for questioning at the Central Bureau of Interpretive Investigations after he was heard musing that perhaps the ITIHAS textbooks might benefit from mention of intercaste conflict. This to a man with even higher scores on his narrative patriotism polygraph than mine.

“I suppose,” I said, “that you, sir, will have some very wise instincts.” It was not, after all, my job to interpret the present—only to record and preserve the past. I would leave the present to Mishra-Sir’s other clerks.

Mishra-Sir rubbed his chin. “Americans refer to the past as the dead hand of history. Ha! But look. See—the rock of the caves, the rock comprising the man. They are the same. Is this not history come to life?”

I said I saw what he meant.

Mishra-Sir complained that the department’s astrologers had all disagreed with one another. One called the statue man the work of black magic, while another called the fellow a sign from God about the importance of the E— caves.

He leaned back in his chair. “What does this department need, at the moment?” he asked.

“What, sir?”

“Hope.” Mishra-Sir waved a finger. He was likely thinking of the student protests just miles from this office in Delhi—leftists with no sense of ITIHAS, leftists who believed themselves cousins with some Western elite because they did not understand where they had come from. We had recently discussed these so-called movements, and shared disdain, which was perhaps why Mishra-Sir was finding me an appealing sounding board today. “A sense of the living presence of our nation’s history.”

This phrasing inspired me. I agreed.

“Ashok Jagtap, is it,” he said, rummaging through the papers on his desk. “Ashok Jagtap, welcome to the cause.”

It was late when I at last left the pink sandstone government building and made for the metro. I was subsumed by the uneven traffic of the capital, its smog, its winking lights, its colonial roundabouts, its mosques next to its buses next to the vast hoardings displaying bosoms of Bollywood starlets. On these rides to and from work, I briefly forgot about making sense of the nation—it was just there, all around, honking, coughing, pulsing.


The reporters stayed even as dusk set in. Some encircled Mr. Ashok, waiting to see if he would twitch, the way those who had reported on politicians learned to stake out the houses of a leader embroiled in scandal. Mr. Ashok did not twitch. Finally, the guards began to herd everyone out. They missed the statue man taking a few small steps into the shadows of the neem tree, where he waited for the night to fully darken.

But Babu saw him. He had been unable to speak to his old friend at all that day, due to the crowds. Now, he sidled up to Mr. Ashok.

“Ashok-ji?” he tried.

Mr. Ashok did not reply or move. All he could think was that Babu had brought these hordes upon him. Babu had turned him into this spectacle.

Babu knocked on Mr. Ashok’s stone skin, said, “Please talk, do something!”

Mr. Ashok did not oblige. So, the balloon seller left, confused and afraid.

Alone, Mr. Ashok gathered his box of possessions and made his way up the hill, into the darkness, to his favored cove of Parvatis.

That night he stood upright, eyes fixed on the curve of the woman who was either the goddess or the preserved paramour of a doting artisan. He began to speak to her, to tell her about the wife she had once seen him press against the stone. He had tried his best with her, for her. If he had been clumsy it was only because he wanted a good life for them. A son, money, dignity. As Mr. Ashok spoke, slivers of moonlight filtered through the open mouth of the cave, falling on the possible-Parvati’s face, casting her with a kind of life, as though her features were responding to his confessions, as with domestic empathy.


He passed several sleepless nights like this until one morning, a khaki jeep pulled up in front of the guardhouse. Mr. Ashok was standing regimentally at the foot of the lawn, in front of the Kailasa Temple, trying to smile amicably at those visitors arriving early to beat the heat. The jeep pulled in, and out we climbed, Mishra-Sir and me.

“Namaskar,” Mishra-Sir said when he approached Mr. Ashok, offering folded hands and a shallow bow. I followed suit. “I see you are much as the pictures depicted.”

Mishra-Sir began to circle Mr. Ashok, like an inspector visiting a job site. I stood with my hands clasped behind my back. He asked when the change had occurred, what the consistency of Mr. Ashok’s “flesh” seemed to be; if he had received visitations from deva- or demon-like figures; whether Mr. Ashok was eating, sleeping, breathing, etc. He inquired whether Mr. Ashok had sought treatment from a priest. A homeopathic or allopathic or Ayurvedic physician. And when Mr. Ashok said—in a voice that sounded like someone shouting through an empty hall at the end of a wedding—that he had not, Mishra-Sir hmmed and mopped his brow with a hankie.

Mishra-Sir then turned to me, as if to say, Do you have any questions?

“How are you, Mr. Jagtap, sir?” I asked.

Mishra-Sir smiled. I knew how he saw me: a step closer to the everyman than he.

“Yes, how are you, generally?” Mishra-Sir echoed.

“Well,” Mr. Ashok considered a long while. His jaw moved squarely, uncomfortably—I realized he was attempting to laugh.


Mishra-Sir did not know what to make of this, but I could not help but join in Mr. Ashok’s loud, helpless chortles. I felt I understood something, just then, about the failures of understanding, and my mind flitted to my lost aunt and sister and the blameless maid who went with them too. A map gone wrong, the blast that killed them, and yet there was more too, something I had never been able to speak, something that defied interpretation. This was something you came to understand if you were, as I was, servant to history as much as government. That no matter how much you grasp the events that propelled us from then to now, there are always more questions than answers. What did Gandhi feel in the moments before his life ended; how did Jinnah sleep on the night of August 14? What brought Tagore his poems, or Aurobindo to his meditation cell? And earlier, where did the Upanishads come from?—for there was God in them, but there was also the world.

These were thoughts I managed carefully, especially in the moment of the narrative patriotism polygraphs, and while at work, but suddenly, looking up at this poor Mr. Ashok and his transformation, which we had arrived to make sense of, I felt transmogrified in my own way, trapped in all I would not be able to answer for Mishra-Sir.

But this is not my story.

We adjourned to the shade, where Mishra-Sir shooed away the monkeys that tried to squat on Mr. Ashok’s head.

We three men enjoyed a sprawling conversation that afternoon. Mishra-Sir asked the questions, Mr. Ashok responded, and I took down notes, nodding encouragingly. We gathered the biographical information: English tuitions, marriage, the wife’s desertion. The illness and insomnia in the weeks leading up to the change.

One thing gave Mishra-Sir pause. “I’m not sure what to make of the fact that your—personal organ—has been spared this fate.”

Mr. Ashok admitted he too was flummoxed in the face of this fact.

I averted my gaze from them both.

“We must offer the public a clear, government-issued pronouncement on the Symbolic Meaning of your change. And we cannot have a whole lot of morally offensive business circulating about your privates.”

Mr. Ashok said he too would rather not have his member mentioned in public and related some of the questions from the reporters the day prior, as well as his response. As Mr. Ashok demonstrated how he had fallen still when the reporters hounded him, Mishra-Sir cried, “Aha! Perhaps you should have gone into politics.”

Then Mishra-Sir asked Mr. Ashok if he could have a moment to confer with his colleague. It took me a beat to realize this meant me. The two of us stepped away.

“Well?” Mishra-Sir said. I remained silent, my eyes trained on my notes, aware that he would shortly supply the answer to his own question. And he did. “What I am imagining—if you can make the proper historical case—is something like, ‘Common man’s devotion to ITIHAS is rewarded by sacred E— caves, earns him . . .’” he trailed off, still thinking.

“Preservation,” I said.

“Preservation,” Mishra-Sir repeated. “What would we need, to do this correctly?”

“Sir, I think your intuition should be sufficient.”

“No, we need a case, you see. I am sick and tired of being told that we are fantasists and fabulists. It is unfair to all of you who work so tirelessly to, yes, preserve, the truth about ITIHAS, our glorious history. We must make the complete case. You will do so.”


“Is there,” Mishra-Sir said, his voice icy, “a problem?”

Where to begin? I had never seen anything like the case of Mr. Ashok in our nation’s history. But my mind flashed to the Central Bureau of Interpretive Investigations, the chilling office some streets away from ours. Its closed black door, behind which our department’s clerk had disappeared.

I assured Mishra-Sir there was no problem.

I had a new thought then as I looked at Mr. Ashok taking some frightened steps back from a small child advancing on him.

“Sir,” I said. “Perhaps we can help preserve Mr. Ashok Jagtap ourselves.”

Mishra-Sir frowned. “What is it you have in mind?”

The paperwork was soon set in motion to declare him a national monument, and so began the second great change Mr. Ashok would undergo.


I was given a government-let room in the city of A—. Each morning I took an official jeep to the sacred E— caves, where I wandered, taking notes for the report due in a week or so. I checked in on Mr. Ashok daily, ensuring that the ropes behind which he was now safely stationed were keeping him apart from the clamoring crowds and clambering children. “You are well?” I always made sure to ask, but there was no more of the laughter he’d greeted this question with on the first day.

After a week, he lifted a hand, with some effort, to stop me before I walked away. It touched the edge of the fraying brown rope. We had settled on having him stand in some shade to one side of the Kailasa Temple.

“Please,” he said in a small voice. “I want to move.”

Nearby was a swarm of schoolchildren visiting on a tour. They were poking and hitting one another, boys tugging girls’ plaits, girls swatting them off, and the poor schoolmistress trying to organize them into a neat line to enter the temple. I looked at them, and back at Mr. Ashok. One of the boys was gripping the front of his pants and raising a pinkie finger, crying susu-susu—he needed the toilet. I imagined one of those children somehow . . . ruining Mr. Ashok. I would be imperiled.

“Mr. Jagtap,” I said. “I am very sorry, but I cannot—we cannot— take this risk.”

“Let me do my job, let me give tours,” he fairly begged. “A monument touring a monument!” I had a vision of him standing here alone, all night, speaking that pitch into the dark sky, waiting for me to arrive to test it out. But that vision was quickly replaced by the menacing black door of the CBII.

“Mr. Jagtap, sir, the thing about monuments, you see, is that people don’t want them moving about too much. It is most comforting to know that they still exist, are preserved, but are, for the most part, standing still, you see. Imagine the Taj Mahal standing on its haunches and offering people a tour of itself. It would make no sense at all!”

I asked him if he understood.

He said he did.

As I was walking up a hill toward a tree where I had found it helpful to sit with my notes, the balloon seller whom I knew was Mr. Ashok’s friend caught up to me. The pink bobble bounced above his head.

“Sir, sir, sir,” he panted. “Sir, how is he? Ashok-ji? He will not speak to me.”

I could not help but feel relieved at this, despite the skinny boy’s wretched facial expression—he looked ragged with grief, his cheeks gaunt, the whites of his eyes almost yellowing. For I had worried about this balloon seller, whether he would take offense at the designation of his friend as monument, and try, somehow, to smuggle him away.

“He only will say he is following his orders, doing his duty, and then he is—” He made a noise like a zipper closing.

“That is correct,” I said. I pretended I did not know his name and asked it. This was something I had seen Mishra-Sir do with underlings.

“Babu, sir.”

“Babu, you must know about the importance of this national ITIHAS movement? You have seen the Party officials coming through, seen all the graffiti and all?”

He nodded.

I was not so eloquent as Mishra-Sir, but I went on to explain, in abbreviated form that would suit this balloon seller, the importance of settling on a secure, stable ITIHAS. “This country had so much taken away from it, isn’t it? By all sorts of outsiders. Now we are righting the wrongs. Making sure everyone knows who we are.” I added a final flourish. “Who we have always been.”

Babu the balloon seller cocked his head.

“They took away one man from my slum,” he said quietly. “The ITIHAS people. Mad fellow. Went round in the middle of the night making moo-moo noises like a cow, you see. He had always done this, it was how he was. Then, a few days back, an ITIHAS person comes by, says, ‘This man is the reincarnation of an ancient saint here to remind us of the evils of cow murderers.’ Nobody seen him since.”
“I am sure they are protecting him.” I gulped. The man, I suspected, had been taken to a government office to see a mythoneurologist. If he passed certain tests, with whose details I was unfamiliar, he might join one of the touring ITIHAS campaigns on which the Department of Symbolic Meaning relied. He would be caravanned through villages and slums to inspire locals to remain on the lookout for ITIHAS artifacts, to stay mindful of history, and to believe in its vivid and sacred reality. How many times had I seen those three objectives on departmental memos?

Babu drew his hands together in a namaskar. The spotted balloons bobbed above his head.


I reported directly to Mishra-Sir daily, which was a great honor. That night, I told him Mr. Ashok had requested to move. This troubled him.

“That would not do at all,” he said. “Already there is a Tripadvisor page for Mr. Ashok Jagtap, have you seen? These ratings would be very bad should he start to move about.”

Mishra-Sir went on to tell me about the word trickling down to local ITIHAS officials about the possibility of humanoid monuments. Everyone in Delhi was thrilled about this, from the Department of Symbolic Meaning to the Department of Temple Tourism.

New possible monuments included, now:
  1. A child, born robin’s-egg blue, in the manner of Lord Krishna; his parents had slathered him in butter in tribute to the impish god’s favorite food, and were accepting donations from visitors. His skin was being tested to ensure it had not simply been painted that way.
  2. The definitely philandering wife turned into a bhoota, her body transparent, everyone in the village now able to see her unfaithful, still-beating heart, provided they gave her husband a very modest fee for his pains.
  3. The definitely unphilandering wife, now known as Second Sita, who had walked across hot coals to prove that she had not cuckolded her husband, and who continued to do so daily in front of curious eyes, again for a modest fee.

. . . and so on.

When I arrived at the caves a few days later, having spent some time at a local university looking through archives, I found that Mr. Ashok had been assigned a new form of protection. Standing next to his brown rope was a man in a green and neon-orange vest, like a garbage picker, who was missing all of his teeth except for a single large incisor, which rose from his bloody gums like an elephant tusk. Instead of a rifle, the man held a jackhammer—a deadly weapon for Mr. Ashok.

My heart truly broke to see Mr. Ashok this way. But I did not know what I could do. I let him know that I was wrapping up my research on his situation. I glanced at the guard, who surely did not speak English, and switched languages accordingly. I told Mr. Ashok that I had chosen to leave out most details of his life from all official materials. He was a monument now, and a monument, I had come to realize in the course of my research, was the opposite of history. It could afford no unanswered questions. It was no place for shadows. It was firm, the cornerstone on which the present was built.

“Perhaps this is good news,” I said, lowering my voice to a whisper. “You yourself will retain some privacy.”

Mr. Ashok said nothing.

“Take care,” I said ineffectually.

I returned to New Delhi.

That summer ended, monsoon began, and the visitors came and went, taking their photographs in front of the thing they knew bore import; as they filed out at night, they began cropping their images on their phones, changing the lighting for the best profile picture results, sometimes turning Mr. Ashok’s stone body indistinguishable from the temples behind him, so that their faces remained the only things looming large and clear.


I learned about the trouble with the new monument some months later. The word was that the statue man, in whom we had invested quite a lot of resources, both in terms of finances and publicity, had simply disappeared. The jackhammer-wielding guard had gone home as usual, after locking up the thick metal gate around the figure—they’d switched away from rope about a month earlier, after an impertinent teenage boy managed to urinate over the barrier, onto the foot of the monument. When that single-toothed guard arrived in the morning, he found a squarish impression in the dust where the monument formerly known as Ashok Jagtap had once stood. The Party’s local ITIHAS officials had searched all Muslim neighborhoods in the surrounding city of A—, for Muslims were the culprits likeliest to deface a sacred Hindu and Buddhist site. While this resulted in an important arrest for a Symbolic Meaning investigation into a cartographical insurrectionist—a man linked to the dangerous map that had once been responsible for killing my sister—it did not turn up any semblance of Mr. Ashok.

Mishra-Sir came to my office to offer his sympathies. He said he understood how difficult it was to put so much work into an initiative only to have it swiped from the earth. He encouraged me to use this feeling of frustration to empathize with our forebears, who had built empires only to have them erased by colonial and Mughal invaders. I nodded in agreement, tracing the map of the nation that sits on my desk with my long pinkie fingernail. But even well-spoken Mishra-Sir could not help me in that moment, for it was not the Symbolic loss of the monument that was striking me with hot pangs. It was a particular fear for Mr. Ashok. We—I—had conscripted him into our cause, promising him safety, and now he was God knew where, suffering at God knew whose hands. I shivered to think of someone taking a chisel to his features the way conquering warriors had often done to statues of Buddhas and goddesses.

I stood and requested a week to go home to my family’s village.

Mishra-Sir regarded me with immense kindness.

“You are a man still connected to his people.” He granted me leave, adding that when I came back, he would like to speak to me about a possible promotion out of the annals of historical interpretation. “You are fit for the present,” he said, which was highest praise.

I arrived in the city of A— the next afternoon and hired a car to drive to the E— caves. These were not insignificant expenses for me. The first person I saw when I crossed through the gates at dusk was Babu the balloon seller. He was standing next to a metal fence, sickly spotted pink balloons in hand. It took me a moment to realize that this fence was the protective metal grating designed to keep Mr. Ashok safe from the crowds.

Babu noticed me as well. His face grew taut as I approached.

“I haven’t seen him,” he said sharply.

“We are only worried,” I said. I amended. “I am worried.”

“Fat lot of good that does now,” Babu said. “There was a riot in my slum after your Symbolic Whatsit raids. Many-many people’s homes burned. Some people inside as they burned. That is what happens when your department goes all blaming-shaming.”

I felt very tired. “Was he well, last you spoke to him?”

Babu scoffed. It occurred to me that if I wielded authority the way Mishra-Sir did, this balloon seller would never be comfortable treating me this way. But I have never come across as a strong man. “He had not spoken to me since before your visit, Sir.” Babu’s mouth sagged. “He believed I had turned him over. To the public. He was right. But I only wished to help him.”

And then the wiry balloon seller began to sob.

“Sir,” he said, when he had stopped, wiping his nose with his ratty T-shirt, which said something in English I was sure he did not understand—I know HTML: how to meet ladies. “You are certainly not here on department business and all?”

“I am not.” Here perhaps my lack of authority worked to my advantage, for poor Babu decided in that moment to trust me. “Nighttime here was Ashok-ji’s favorite time. Caves mysterious then. You know what he used to say?”—a wet sniff—“That these E— caves had many secrets you could hear at night. Wind flying through them in monsoon, this time of year, right listener can catch all the history only this place is remembering.” He shook his head. “I am too uneducated for all this, I am thinking. I come here and no-one-nothing talks to me. But you are educated. Maybe you are hearing something I cannot.”


The E— caves at night were eerie. Unlit. I followed Babu’s directions to wait deep in one of them, next to a seated Buddha, as dusk dwindled into darkness. The guards went round closing up, but no one came sniffing inside the damp rock caverns. I suppose it would have been unimaginable that anyone would wish to lock themselves in these ancient rooms. Babu left me as the day ended.

“You tell me in morning,” he said. “Tell me what all you hear.” He looked mournfully at his bare feet. “I was trying and all, to learn English. Ashok-ji said it was a very good idea.”

Far from the smog-clouded city of A—, I could see a flash of the unpolluted night sky, the milky moon and winking starlight, streaming in through the mouth of the cave where I had chosen to sit. It had been a long time since I had attempted to pray, but waiting in that cave I called upon some yogic instruction I had learned in Haridwar many years ago. I opened my eyes after a time to look at the great seated Buddha behind me. Prince Siddhartha’s face was crude and expressionless. I prostrated myself before him. He loomed perhaps three meters high. And then, unthinking, I climbed into the Buddha’s lap and placed my head in his wise stone hands.

Through the silence came the patter of rain outside, a night monsoon storm beginning and, with my head in the Buddha’s hands, I began to hear something. I shut my eyes once more, and into me flowed a very intimate knowledge of Mr. Ashok Jagtap’s life in the years before he became a monument, the knowledge I have set down here, in what you must now realize is an unsanctioned history that I have kept hidden from departmental surveillance. I do not know how long I sat there, but when I opened my eyes, the rainstorm had quelled and the night was beginning to orange, the start of a new day. I stepped down from the Buddha’s lap, and I walked to the cave that I had learned about in the night, Mr. Ashok’s favorite cave, the one that housed the many Parvatis.

Early on the morning Mr. Ashok disappeared from inside the protective metal grating, he had been jolted from his sleepless rest to find a sudden stiffness in his private area. It frightened him. His limbs had grown less mobile in the months since he had been designated a monument, but despite that, he had retained flesh in this one key part of himself. He reached for himself, and to his great relief, found that his penis had not turned into stone. It was just morning desire greeting him the way it once did. Something had changed—he wanted. Lusted. For something. Life, again. And in that moment, he remembered that he was a man. He wanted to act like one, touch like one, once more.

It was not easy for him to reach over the gate that fenced him inside, but once he got moving again, for the first time in many weeks, it was simple to break the lock—stone can do that, you see. He made his way up the green-yellow hill that carpeted the back of the cave site, through the dry, dying grass, and joined the footpath at its high edge. He stepped over a discarded Bisleri water bottle, a neon Kurkure packet. He looked for the pink bobble of Babu’s balloons but it was too early. He would have liked to see them, once more.

He entered the cave of Parvatis and approached his favorite—the one who may not have been Parvati, the one who was, surely, just the wife of an artisan. He approached his Parvati and placed one of his stony hands on one of her perfectly globular breasts. With the other he lowered his zipper, and then braced himself on the virgin part of the stone, the uncarved place where he had once held his wife. The breast in his hand was pliant. Like clay, anxious to be shaped. He slid himself into a woman who was ready in a way he had never experienced, and a great human ache passed through him. His flesh met the Parvati’s stone, in the final change, as the caves took him as their own. Parvati’s three arms were splayed wide, and then they were not; they tightened around him. She was stronger than him. He tried to look down to see what he already knew, that now he was made entirely of stone. But he could not turn his head. It faced into the wall. The basalt cliff closed in around his face, his eyes, and whatever last remnant of blood and breath that remained in him halted. And then Mr. Ashok Jagtap, that man riddled with mistakes, who knew he had not understood life, was suddenly and completely consumed by ITIHAS.

When I crept into the caves that morning, searching for evidence of Mr. Ashok’s final moments, I found that three-armed Parvati at the very edge of the cave. She appeared unfinished. Something protruded from the rock, overlaying her. Her chest was obscured by the inchoate shape of Mr. Ashok’s body covering hers. Morning light fell around me, illumining her inscrutable expression. Like candle flickers, a pattern of curses and prayers and questions. I felt I knew nothing, knew absolutely nothing of that pattern of the past, of flesh and stone, of how our history is one moment living, and the next, preserved.


Sanjena Sathian is a 2019 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was supported by the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, and of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has also been published in Boulevard, Joyland, Salt Hill Journal, and The Master’s Review. She has also worked as a reporter in Mumbai and San Francisco, with nonfiction bylines for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Food & Wine, and more.