Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Mound of the Dead 1


                               “Speed the soft intercourse from soul to soul,
                                And waft a sigh from Indus to the Pole.”
                                                                     Alexander Pope

The owls glared down on us from the rafters. Squadrons of mosquitoes raided the steamy darkness between us. Despite our fatigue, it was impossible to sleep. We had arrived in a backwater shell of a railway station around 3:30 am, draping the clumsy bone weariness over our packs, impatient for the dawn. A large sonorous adenoid snored loudly on a broken rattan recliner, in the middle of the cement platform.
Robyn prodded me more awake at first pale gray light, pointing to the moustached brown man in the powder blue pajamas, wearing a green shawl, and an iridescent Sindhi pillbox hat with a cutout forehead.
“They sent a limo.” She said, pointing to the battered red horsecart he was standing beside. The cartwheels were splayed, and retreaded with bits of nail-on bicycle tire. The tiny gaunt horse in the harness looked a bit the same way.
“Mohenjo-daro?” I asked. He bobbled his head from side to side, almost imperceptibly.
“Is that a yes?” Asked Julie.
“Oh, most definitely.” It was the adenoid, now awake. “The listener is in agreement, and has no problem with the message currently being conveyed.”
“Is that a yes?” Asked Robyn.
It wasn’t as if we had a choice of transport. We all piled into the back of the cart with our backpacks. The cartwheels splayed some more. The little pony sighed. He knew that we were thirteen kilometers from our destination. No one told us.
A whipcrack lurched the cart into the dim daybreak.
Our eyes became fixed on what was filling the horizon. It started as a perfect curved glob of red lava, pushing away the sky. It rose magnificent, a smooth molten discus, tethers falling away, buoying itself over the rice swamps and sandpipers and water buffalo and three exhausted travelers. I remember the exact azimuth, the precise angle at which the leading edge of the red ascendant star suddenly gleamed white, like the scimitar it was to become. Solar flares cartwheeled off the sun’s surface. The sauna shockwave of heat that hit us broadside nearly unloaded our carriage. The sweat that poured out of us, left in so much of a hurry, as if to have never existed. And it wasn’t yet seven o’clock in the morning.
The highest temperature ever recorded in Pakistan was 53.5 °C (128.3 °F), in Mohenjo-daro. It was not only the hottest reliably measured temperature ever recorded in the continent of Asia, but also the fourth highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. It didn’t seem like Earth. It seemed like Mercury. No one told us. The little pony sighed.
As if sensing our discomfiture, our driver stopped at a stick and burlap kiosk, adorned with a string of tiny green pennants, above a giant aluminum kettle. The smell of shit was strong.
“Chai?” He bobbled. We bobbled back.
We were served cups of pure sugar. Liquid was obviously in short supply. It turned our thirst into pain, and our mouths to ash. Our pony plodded on, penetrating the stifling heat, to the ruins. Everything was closed. We weren’t taking prisoners anyway. Dropping our packs behind the open counter at the museum entrance, we climbed anergically to the stupa.
“What did this place die from, anyway?” Asked Julie.
“No one really knows.” I said. “Some think it was flooded out. Most likely the river disappeared, it ran out of water, and settlement headed east. There’s even an outlandish theory that it was flattened by a thermonuclear explosion.”
“Put me down for that one.” Said Robyn. “We came all this way for a pile of rubble?” I explained that it wasn’t just a pile of rubble. Mohenjo-daro had been one of the largest settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the world’s earliest urban centers, contemporary with ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Crete. It was twenty-six centuries old.
“A twenty-six hundred year old pile of rubble.” She said. I accepted that fatigue was ruining their sensibilities, but I was impressed with the acres of red brick rectilinear grid structure in the Citadel and Lower City. There were assembly halls, a central market place, wells, and covered sewers. From a colonnaded courtyard, steps led down to a public bath, the clay ground now parched and cracked from the heat. Salt flowers blossomed, where the water should have been. Our lips were heading in the same direction. Mudsweat streamed down our faces, and dangled off the ends of our noses, like self-generated Chinese torture.
I mentioned that Mohenjo-daro had been successively rebuilt and destroyed seven times.
“Should have left well enough alone.” Jules muttered. I told them about the bronze statuette of a dancing girl, with her pouting lips and impudent posture, found here almost sixty years earlier. I looked up, into pouting lips and impudent postures. When the word ‘bloody’ arrived in front of the rubble, I knew it was time to go.
We retreated to the only nearby building, and the stark green lobby of the Paki Modern Hotel. The moustached brown desk clerk immediately recognized our distress, and plugged a large fan into the corner reception receptacle. We collapsed in a heap in front of the slowly twirling blades, cartwheels of cooler but not even approaching cool. He asked if we wanted something to drink. Our heads bobbled in unison. He brought us a Coca-cola, the only one they had. It was warm.
“What exactly does Mohenjo-daro mean anyway, Wink?” Asked Julie, always the inquisitor.
“It’s Sindi.” I said.
“For what?” asked Robyn.
“It translates literally as ‘Mound of the Dead.’  I said.
The fan slowed to a stop. We looked toward the desk clerk, eyes pleading.
“Chai?” He bobbled.


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