Once upon a time there was a planet that was ruled by three gods with a monkey for a secretary. The place was vast, with plenty of rolling hills and valleys, fields and rivers, trees and plants and animals. A lot like our earth. Our earth, in fact, but ten thousand years ago.
The three gods who ruled the land worked as farmers. You’re probably thinking, gods don’t work, they just solve people’s problems (if they feel like and if you’ve made a nice food offering). But that’s nowadays. Ten thousand years ago, after the gods of old had fought and wiped out evil, the ones left on earth became farmers.
They planted vast tracts of land with good sound crop like potatoes, rice, cabbage and beans. They grew tough and hardy plants and trees which would survive the violent prehistoric storms.
These farmer-gods had no use for fruit like leechi or flowers like sweet pea which are merely tasty or smell pretty. They planted only things that when you ate, built muscular and physical strength. This is because the gods were the mighty warrior gods of old. Their names were Zeus, Osiris and Kali, and in their young days they had fought many other mighty warriors from our earth and the skies, in order to gain control over this fertile and beautiful land.
Of the three ruling gods, Zeus was Greek. He always wore white and was the god of light and skies. Osiris was the god who had conquered death and carried a scary and impressive scepter, a carved staff which has magical powers. Kali was a fearsome female goddess with a chain of human skulls around her neck and a red tongue that lolled out all the time she was awake. Actually these three gods had ruled the earth so long together that they had become quite alike in the way they looked and behaved. They were all inflexible, didn’t have a sense of fun, and were wrinkled like old people, although still powerful and not balding a bit. Only Osiris had a trace of baldness which he secretly worried about.
I mentioned a monkey in the opening line of this story. The monkey that served them like a sort of secretary, had never seen a war. He was young (about a hundred years old but that’s young as compared to a god’s age) and an intellectual. You know what that is? An ‘intellectual’ likes to read about and understand things. A bit like you.
The monkey’s name was Manny. He was taller and less hairy than any monkey you must have seen. And he wore magnifying glasses fixed into spectacle frames, because he liked to see the words on a page in giant size. If he did not, then his masters who liked to give orders, would interrupt his thoughts all the time and Manny would never be able to get his reading done.
The only thing that he liked as much as he liked reading, was farming. Manny liked to grow things, although these days he was bored with planting potatoes and rice and wheat, having done the same planting every crop cycle for about eighty five years.
One afternoon when the gods were busy at their siesta and the monkeys who worked for them were also dozing in the trees and haystacks, Manny came upon a strange word: ‘redolence’. The sentence read this way – ‘The redolence of sandalwood made the king remember his beloved queen.’ This whole sentence was unusual; in fact this whole book was unusual, because the only books that were available explained the art of war and how to grow food, make useful pots and weave clothes and baskets. Yes, boring. The gods approved of these topics, because things like love and flowers, fine clothes, jewellery, and painting had given rise, they felt, to greed and jealousy. These had led to the wars on Earth.
This line about a king and his beloved was in a book called ‘Love Story’, which a frog had discovered at the bottom of a disused well. He had found it and humbly submitted it to Manny, not knowing how to read himself. Half the pages of the book were green with rot, but still Manny read what he could, so much did he love reading.
There were not many words that the monkey did not understand, he was in fact making a list of words and their meanings. He thought long and hard about ‘redolence’ and its possible meanings. He decided to ask Zeus.
Zeus was the mildest of the three gods who were his masters. Despite that, Zeus was not the kind of guy you’d go to for a simple chat or even to ask the meaning of something. He lived in the sky, floating along in a permanent cloud castle. He was writing a book of memoirs, that is an account of his life so far. It was already a huge book and was going to get even more staggering by the time Zeus finished. Manny, however, could not wait to get his hands on it. He wanted to know all the juicy bits about Zeus’ life that had been kept hidden so far. He was sure that Zeus would write it all down, seeing as he told nobody about it and everybody needs to tell their secrets to somebody.
“Zeus, Mighty God of the Heavens, forgive me for interrupting, but what is the meaning of redolence?” Manny asked, his voice shaking. Zeus had an awful temper. Zeus frowned and clouds gathered above the earth. His eyebrows bristled, and the clouds immediately became black and heavy. A cold wind rose. Manny trembled so much he thought his tail would fall off.
“It means ‘smell’,” Zeus replied in Greek. “Get my other toga ironed and get me a new nib for my pen.” Manny scurried off, glad that his tail (and the planet) would live to see another day.
Zeus read a page of what he had recently written in his book. He smiled. The sun zipped out from behind the clouds and the sky turned bright blue.
Manny went back to his favorite tree, an old oak, and pondered this. “The redolence of sandalwood made the king remember his beloved queen”. Can a particular smell make you remember somebody? The monkey tried to remember his mother. She had gone to the regions of the netherworld about ten years earlier. Died, I mean. Much as he tried, he could not really remember her sweet hairy face. She had been the nicest lady monkey, but he could not remember her clearly. His memory was stuck like a hung computer. It made him sad and frustrated. As night fell, in his desperation he hit upon an idea.
At new moon when the sky was dark, Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld, walked the face of the earth. Osiris’ soldiers stand guard at the river that you have to cross to enter the netherworld. So he’s in charge of who goes in and out. At new moon Osiris came above ground and hunted large animals if he had a mind for meat, or he caught up on the gossip of the world with Zeus and Kali, whoever was awake. Tonight neither was, so Osiris was sitting by himself in a grove of banyan trees.
“Great Osiris, O Great Osiris, psst!” Manny whispered from behind a tree. He had been spying on the lean, dark god for three hours now, and his cramped legs gave him the courage to speak.
“Who dares interrupt a God’s game?” Osiris hissed. The head of his sceptre turned into that of a huge serpent. The birds in the grove bundled up their sleeping babies and crept away to other groves. Osiris had been playing chess by himself, playing both sides in turn. He’d been playing the same game for two thousand nights now, and neither side had won, so he was understandably cranky.
“I will put iron weights on your ankles, you who disturb me and prolong my game!”
Manny plucked up every last bit of courage and stumbled forward. “Osiris sir, if I might, the black king goes there, and the white pawn here. Black side checkmates white and in the next move, finito, khattam, auf wiedersehen, game!”
“Eye of Ra! Why didn’t I think of it?” Osiris scratched his balding head. A school of spiders ran out of his hair and down his neck. “I can finally start a new game. What do you wish to ask of me, monkey?”
“The impossible sir, and yet I know only you can grant it.”
“Yes, I can indeed grant things that old Zeus and Kali cannot,” Osiris sniffed. The netherworld is a lonely place and the gods that guard it are not your friendly neighbourhood types.
“I want to see my mother,” Manny said boldly.
“She is on the other side of the dark river, so no. And don’t ask again. I have no time for idiotic requests,” Osiris said coldly.
“I want to smell her, then,” the monkey said quickly.
Osiris frowned irritably, and a tree in the grove that he sat in, wilted and slipped to the ground.
“I helped you finish the game,” Manny fearfully reminded him.
“That is true. I am not an ungrateful god, so I will summon your mother’s smell from the underworld. Just for a second. Enjoy. (aside) Monkeys. Quite crazy. Possibly dangerous. Must ask Zeus to write down the description so other gods can be more careful.”
Then he waved his skinny black arms slowly in the direction of the ground. His fingers wiggled and a fragrance wafted up into the air above the ground. Manny took a deep breath and WHAM! a picture of his loving mother slapped him between the eyes. Clear as day even on a dark moonless night. She did indeed have the best smile in the world. Besides she had been doing something interesting that Monkey had all but forgotten since she had passed over. It was the smell that made him remember.
Mother Monkey, Mira, had been cultivating something amazing before she died. Something small, black, round. Something that had a sharp smell that poked your nose like a stick, if you sniffed it too closely. It made you sneeze, it made your eyes water. It did not build muscular strength. It just made food really interesting. Pepper!
Manny thought long and hard in the days that followed. His mother had frozen and stored the seeds in the Arctic Circle. The seeds of all ‘useless’ plants had been stowed away there by Diana the moon god and Dionysus the wine god before they left Earth. Zeus and his ilk thought these plants too useless to even bother to destroy their seeds. Now Manny was determined to revive pepper. It would recall his mother’s face whenever he wanted to see it. And would make the potatoes taste decent. He could not do it without the support of atleast one god. But who?
“Lya lya lya lyah!” Manny heard a voice go. The squirrels and other small animals huddled closer to each other in their beds. It was Kali singing, very early in the morning. So early it was still dark. That was her favorite hour.
“Ma!” Manny pleaded after he had lain at her feet and groveled at her huge black toes during which time she polished her gleaming silver knives and continued to sing with her tongue out.
“I want to plant pepper. Please. It is for your greater glory.”
“My glory needs no greatifying,” Kali said, rolling her eyes at Manny’s stupidity.
“Your grammar sure needs help,” Manny said… to his own horror, aloud.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” Kali boomed. She brandished her favourite knife and furiously lolled her tongue.
“Pepper!” Manny yelled desperately as the sharp blade nudged his throat. “It will recall you to everybody who smells it, every time they use it in their cooking, each time it touches their tongue! Easy recall. You are Kali, mother of the world, and pepper is… is Kali Mirch, your own special Black Chilli. It’ll greatify your power. Betterfy you over Zeus and Osiris!”
“Hmm. Oo lya lyah,” the god was calmed by Manny’s idea. It addressed a certain need that Manny was not aware of. You see Kali is a warrior god who commands a fearsome army. Her troops had been hanging around in Africa for a thousand years now, living like nomads, and they were restless, spoiling for a fight. Pepper might be the answer, thought Kali. She too was sick of peace. The days and nights stretched endlessly before her. Peace. Ho hum humdrum. She would use pepper to bait Osiris and Zeus into a war situation.
Kali gave him her blessings and Manny began skillfully to plant pepper. Soon other monkeys were also cultivating small patches. One breezy day, Zeus in his cloud castle sniffed the air. Interesting smell, he thought. Sharp. And when he trained his thoughts to the smell, Zeus realised that treason was afoot. The food laws had been broken, and Kali was behind it.
He called an emergency meeting with Osiris that night. Manny was there to serve them food and beverages. He had made bean and potato sandwiches with a thick layer of mustard paste. They were served with hot coffee. The gods were hooked. They hadn’t had mustard and coffee in centuries and oh how these things teased their noses and played with their palates. These tastes made them recall other gods they had feasted with, laughed with, fought with, and loved.
‘Redolence’ had them so hard by the nose, they could not escape it. Still the gods could not ignore their own laws or even change them immediately, so they staged a few wars over spices and smells. A hundred years of mock fighting passed. Then, over gulps of ginger tea and mouthfuls of peppery pakodas, Zeus, Kali and Osiris drew up new food laws and a fresh peace accord. “To tastier times,” they toasted.
According to the new laws, Manny and the monkeys could plant whatever would grow on Earth. The food with the best smells you had to offer to the gods first to taste and enjoy. After that you’d be free to plant on, sniff on, feast on!
Those are the laws that Manny passed on to our generation. If you want to confirm them, go to a library and look up a big book called Manny-smriti. The story is all there, all true. Just made more interesting with a smattering of spice. Pepper, if you want to be specific, Manny’s favourite.