The final act of Rajkumar’s life opened to neither cheers nor applause.
He looked down at the gentle, placid Rapti flowing fifty feet below. It should have been a raging torrent at this time of year, but the river had no sense of occasion. He held the bridge’s railing tight with his left hand, the other inspecting the iron weight tied to his ankle.
He had no choice. All his life, Rajkumar had only wanted to be a jadugar. Unfortunately, he was a very bad one. He could never distract an audience, so his illusions never worked. Tea sets shattered when he pulled tablecloths from under them. His white pigeons defecated liberally into his turban. The rabbits bit him. Card decks flew out of his hand, prrrrrrr-uh! and scattered on the stage.
The audiences laughed where they should have gasped in wonder. Tricks that were smoothly rehearsed at home never worked in front of the paying public, and the nerves made sure Rajkumar was never confident during his act. His last show drew an audience of three, not even enough to cover the rent for the hall.
This is it, then.
With a last baleful look at the sky, begging forgiveness for a multitude of vaguely-remembered offences, he let go.
As the water closed over his head, his resolve was tested.
This is going to be painful.
In a few moments he would sink to the bottom. The river would fill his lungs and Yamraj would take his time extracting the soul from his body. Rajkumar hadn’t planned to spend much time dying.
Perhaps this was a mistake. A failed life is still a life.
He slid the loosely-knotted rope off his ankle and bobbed to the surface.
You rascal, said a little voice in Rajkumar’s head, you weren’t fully committed, were you?
He composed himself and looked around. The Rapti nudged him gently, offering a swim to take his mind off things. The bridge was right above him. As he came out from under it, he saw an old man being tossed into the river.
“Heeeeeeelp!!!!!!” the man screamed and disappeared. He surfaced some seconds later, fighting ballast that had clearly been tied by more committed hands.
Rajkumar swum over, took a deep breath, and ducked. He untied the weight on the other man’s leg and helped him ashore.
The two undrowned men lay flat on their backs, listening to sloganeering men being borne across the bridge on a truck.
“Thank you,” gasped the old man, between lungful of cool, sweet air.
“Who tossed you into the river?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I have some time to kill. Tell me anyway.”
“I can see that. We watched you jump before it was my turn. You didn’t really want to kill yourself, did you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Fine. Let me talk about myself. My name is Maniram. I used to heal illnesses with magic across the border in Nepal…”
“Nonsense. I am a jadugar myself. Magic is just our term for tricks of the light. Sleight of hand. There’s no magic magic.”
The men faced each other, heads propped on elbows.
“Indulge me”, said Maniram, “There is real magic in the world. Mine did a lot of good, you know. I took away people’s pain. I saved lives. I gave hope where doctors couldn’t. And I became rich.”
“Nice,” said Rajkumar, not believing any of it, “but you couldn’t magic your way out of an attempted murder?”
“There’s a story. I was not born with my power. It was given to me, on the condition that I used it to help people, or to please and entertain them. Any wealth that came my way fairly was welcome. But I was not allowed to use magic in anger, greed or malice. I kept my hands clean for forty years, until last week.”
“I stopped the heart of a man I hated. Next thing I know, the Watchers had appeared. They bound and gagged me, brought me to the Rapti and tossed me over.”
“Spirits that watch the world and give powers to those who can make it better. Ah, here they are.”
Both men sat upright. Rajkumar saw nothing.
“What are you talking about?” he said.
He squinted. There was a human-shaped shimmer in the air. Like a mirage. Two of them. They walked to the men and helped them up..
“Maniram, we have to finish this.”
The old man sighed.
“We do. It was nice to have a little peace before the end.”
He knelt on the ground. Rajkumar saw a Watcher’s hand extend, its shimmer not unlike a sword.
“Wait!,” he said, “Let him go!”
He felt his arm gently held in a grip of incredible strength.
“Stay out of it, my friend. We have laws that cannot be broken. Maniram has earned this.”
“He’s right,” said Maniram, “The Watchers must do their duty. But I have a final wish.”
“What is it?”
“This young man did me a kindness. Please give him my power. My heart says he will use it well.”
There was stillness, as the Watchers considered the request. The bridge rumbled again as another truck ferried a gang of sloganeering men across the river.
“Fine,” said the Watcher holding the sword. “As your life ends, Maniram, your friend here will receive the gift of magic.”
The sword swung and Maniram disappeared, his clothes falling in an empty heap. Rajkumar felt a tingle run up his spine and then a splitting headache that mercifully lasted only a fraction of a second.
He opened his eyes to see the Watchers more clearly, their transparent shapes more pronounced.
“There are no rules to this game, Rajkumar,” said the one who had held his arm, “Use the magic to your benefit, but make people happy every time. Never use it in anger, greed or malice. Maniram died for it. Our laws are not flexible.”
The Watchers disappeared.
Barkha followed the kingfisher with her binoculars. It was not easy in the twilight, but she had been using them for three years. She could name more birds at eight than most adults could at any age.
Bright lights on the far bank distracted her. The binoculars came to rest on a magic show, where hundreds of people watched in amazement as the magician walked into a column of smoke and disappeared.
She heard her father’s feet crunch on the gravel behind her.
“It’s getting late, child.” Said Hamid. “Let us go.”
Barkha looked up at her father in his khaki Forest Guard uniform.
“A few more minutes Abba?”
“It’ll get dark and then you won’t be able to see the present I got you.”
Hamid’s arm was insistently tugged by a suddenly obedient child.
Arms swinging, father and daughter mock-marched home.
“Is it a cycle, Abba?”
Barkha was crestfallen.
“Not another Book of Moral Tales, Abba?”
The mock-march was quite serious for a few moments. Hamid said nothing, testing his daughter’s patience as they reached the village.
“Abba, you’re still not telling me. What is it?”
“We’re almost home. I’m sure you’ll like it.”
They reached a yellow door set in a sky-blue wall. Hamid pushed the door open and stood aside.
“Get in,” he said to his daughter, a wide grin creasing his thin face.
Barkha leaped across the threshold. She saw her present.
Barkha stared at the present. The present stared back at her.
Hamid saw Zeenat, his wife, walking up the lane. He pointed his thumb inside, mouthed “Barkha” and motioned her to wait with him. Zeenat smiled and leaned on the wall next to him.
The door burst open and Barkha’s little arms dragged both parents towards her.
“Abbaaaa!!!! I love your present! Thank you!”
The little calf looked at her new family locked in an embrace. A long moment later, Barkha detached herself.
“I will call her Mili.”
That night, three men walked into the house as the family sat to dinner.
The oldest one brought his palms together in greeting.
“Namaste, Zeenat Bhabhi.”
“Birju Bhaiya, welcome to our house,” Zeenat said, “Join us for dinner!”
“Thank you, but I have eaten. I have come to talk to you about a pressing matter.”
“What is it?” said Hamid, “Surely you can sit down and have some tea with us?”
“No.” Birju’s eye moved to the verandah across the courtyard, where Mili happily tucked into fresh fodder. “I want to talk about that calf.”
Hamid stood up.
“What do you want?”
Birju grinned, and the taller men on either side grinned with him.
“Why did you buy that cow?”
“Is it any concern of yours?”
Birju’s grin got wider.
“It is my duty to see that the calf is safe, Hamid Bhai. You know it is sacred to us.”
“I know. But she is mine to raise, and I don’t see why you I should talk to you about it.”
“These are tough times, Hamid Bhai. You know it well. The cow is sacred. We have a duty to protect it.”
“I have spent fifteen years protecting all manner of birds and beasts. Yet here you are, lecturing me on caring for my own cow.”
“It isn’t yours, Hamid Bhai. You can understand that there is some discomfort over someone…like you acquiring a cow. It would be a…pity if something happened to it.”
“Nothing will happen to it, as long as you keep your distance,” said Hamid through clenched teeth.
Birju’s grin widened.
“You’re mistaking my intentions. I am very broad-minded. Which is why I shall tell the villagers that you will take good care of the calf. You’re one of the good ones, Hamid bhai. Like Shah Rukh Khan and Abdul Kalam. But be careful. Not everyone is as understanding as we are.”
“We’ll remember it,” said Zeenat, “If you don’t mind, Birju Bhaiya, it is time that we go to sleep. Thank you for coming.”
The man’s eyes burned at the slight but the smile never left his face.
“Very well. Don’t forget what I said.”
Rajkumar’s act was on fire. The audience let loose a collective gasp of horror as flames erupted inside a glass box onstage and the magician walked into them. From the front. He poked his head out from between the flames and grinned. The heat carried to the front rows. Those who were still curious tossed crumpled tickets into the flames, watching the fire devour them all.
A few seconds later, Rajkumar stepped out, unscathed. He held a ball of flame in his hand and blew softly to put it out.
The audience rose to their feet and applauded.
Rajkumar chuckled to himself a few minutes later, counting his earnings from the show. There was no beating real magic.
He left the little village theatre and walked to the bank to deposit the money. He had time for a nap and a stroll before the evening’s performance that took place on the riverbank.
“How your days have turned, pig.”
Rajkumar turned to accost the speaker. It was the old munim from the village kiln where Rajkumar had hauled bricks as a boy. Long-buried memories rose to the surface. Standing in the sun for hours as a punishment. Daily beatings. Slur after humiliating slur, the only treatment fit for a poor man’s son. One sentence played itself over and over again, above the memories of the others.
You will amount to nothing, boy.
He smiled at the munim and touched his feet.
“They have turned indeed, Sir. How are you?”
“I have no time for niceties, boy. Don’t let your new wealth fool you. This is money for nothing. Your tricks won’t last and you will be back in the gutter where you started. Enough strutting around the village like you are an important man”
Rajkumar seethed. The man wasn’t just bitter. He was jealous.
“Your son still rots in prison, right? I hear they beat them daily over there.”
The munim’s hand rose to deliver the inevitable slap. He winced as it seemed to strike stone. He saw the worthless Rajkumar grin in contempt.
“Is it black magic you practice, boy?! I will have you expelled from the village for this!”
“Go ahead. Let us see who believes you.”
The munim spat into the ground and turned to walk away. Rajkumar snapped his fingers. The old man was lifted ten feet into the air and hurled across into the sacks of grain in the shop across the street.
As the market crowded round the howling munim, Rajkumar walked to the bank with a spring in his step.
He was suddenly on the riverbank, under the bridge. The watchers stood in front of him.
“We told you. You cannot use your powers out of malice.”
A herd of cows complained as they were led across the bridge. Rajkumar’s reply was lost in the noise. He repeated himself.
“It was just a tiny push!”
“The magnitude is immaterial. You intended harm.”
“He insulted me.”
“Even so. You are fully capable of retaliating without magic.”
“I am sorry. This won’t happen again.”
“We know. We will make sure of that.”
He felt the magic leak out of his body and fell at the feet of the first Watcher.
“Please! Give me another chance. I can set this right.”
The Watchers looked at one another. The second one spoke.
“We spared your life. That is a chance enough.”
“Please. I beg you.”
The Watchers contemplated against the sound of the last straggling cattle finally making their way across the river.
“Let us see. You can have your powers back only if you are able to perform an act of true magic, unaided by us.”
“But how? Human magic isn’t magic at all.”
“If you want your powers back, you will find a way.”
Rajkumar collapsed to the ground and wept.
Barkha held out a basket of fruits. Mili looked at it balefully and turned away. She had been eating very little over the past week.
The family was worried. Mili’s health had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. The little cow had lived happily for many months, following Barkha around the village. There had been the annoying ‘warnings’ from the newly-anointed Guardians of the Cow, but the animal was healthy, visibly happy and inevitably, popular in the village. Mili and Barkha had spent many afternoons by the riverbank, watching the jadugar play his tricks across the water. Sometimes Barkha accompanied her father on his rounds of the forest. Those were the only times she stayed away from Mili, who would have made a choice snack for a passing leopard.
Neither Barkha nor her parents could understand why Mili was sick. There was no vet in the village, and the one across the river had broken a leg and could not make a visit. They could not take her to him, because of whispers of violent attacks on vehicles transporting cows across the terai. The sacred animal, ignored at the best of times, was now ignored even more as its guardians put their minds to lynching and murder. The highways were policed by men with sticks, swords and (very occasionally) guns, looking for fights with people who transported cows, herded them or accidentally hit them with their vehicles. Sometimes, they would force cowherds to lead the animals to commandeered school buildings for ‘safe-keeping’.
There were always eyes on the forest guard and his neighbours, their alleged love of beef the biggest threat to the sacred animal. In the meantime, Hamid tried some treatments learned over a lifetime of forestry. Nothing helped. Mili would eat a morsel of food once a day, and lie quietly in her corner.
There was commotion outside, and an urgent knock on the door.
Hamid unlatched it to find Birju on the threshold.
“What is this I hear, Hamid Bhai? The cow is sick?”
Hands behind his back, Hamid concealed the trembling as best as he could.
“It is, but we are treating her. She should be fine very soon.”
“Did I not tell you that the cow must get the best care?”
“It’s just a little problem with her appetite, Birju. I am sure she will be fine.”
Birju sighed a sigh that wasn’t wholly there.
“You don’t care for her as…we do. You can’t. In a house among one of us, this cow would flourish. God alone knows what the smell of eggs and meat cooking must have done to the innocent animal.”
Birju glared at Zeenat as she walked up to him.
“Enough,” she repeated, “We will get Mili back on her feet.”
He turned to the door.
“I hope you do. I am a peaceful man, Bhabhi, but I cannot speak for the younger hotheads in these parts. Word gets round, and you know times are bad for”—he grinned a disturbingly insincere grin–”some of us.
Zeenat slammed the door behind him and turned to her husband. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“What will we do now?” they heard their daughter say.
Zeenat pulled Barkha to her chest.
“Mili will be fine. Don’t you worry, my child.”
A week passed. Mili did not get better. She continued to refuse her meals and her ribs began to show. Hamid and Zeenat were worried. Every night, as Barkha struggled to sleep, she heard them go to the cow and cajole her into eating the little she needed to stay alive. She heard their whispers too. Birju was just one among hundreds of men wreaking havoc in the name of the cow. The authorities had given them a free hand, it seemed, and news came of death rising on the terai roads. Innocent people taking their cows to graze, or to cattle fairs to sell, losing their lives on being accosted by violent, mischievous men intoxicated with their strength in numbers.
On the eighth night of her sickness, Mili wailed. It was the loudest she had been in a long while. The forester’s keen ears recognized the cry for help. Mili would die if she wasn’t treated. He made a call to the vet.
“It is as I feared,” he heard the man say at the other end of the line, “It is a simple knot in the gut, but I need to see her urgently. A small operation will set her right.”
“All right, Doctor,” said Hamid, “I’ll get her to you tomorrow.”
“No, my friend. We don’t have time. She has only about six hours, unless you can reach me.”
Hamid put the phone down, his face blanched with terror. He told Zeenat and Barkha what the doctor said.
“How will we take her?” Zeenat said, “No one with a vehicle is going to risk those monsters prowling the roads.”
Hamid’s hands went to his pocket.
“We can use the department jeep.”
“Are you crazy, Abba?” Barkha cried, “They’ll attack you too.”
“I have to risk it, child. It’s just a ten-minute drive. Let us pray that nothing happens. Now help me wrap Mili in something warm and let’s put her in the jeep. There’s a fog descending and we have to move quickly.”
Hamid brought the jeep to the front door while Zeenat and Barkha gently led the cow to the vehicle, cooing in its ears all the time. They laid a blanket in the back of the vehicle, and then another over Mili as she climbed in. Then mother and daughter climbed into the front bench, next to Hamid.
“Mili is weak,” Zeenat said, “She will be silent on the road. I’ve covered her as best as I could.”
Hamid wasn’t listening.
“Get out of the jeep! There is no use putting all our lives in danger!”
“I don’t have the heart to stay back, and neither does Barkha. The risk is what it is.”
Rajkumar stood by the bridge as the fog hid the river from view. As night fell, people hurried past, seeking the warmth of their homes. In the distance, motorcycle engines clattered into life. He sighed. There was an unlucky person on the road somewhere whose fate would send him through here, a cow in the hold of his vehicle, into the arms of men with sticks in their hands and murder in their hearts.
He walked on the footpath towards the other side. The bridge was a full kilometre across. A weak crescent had risen in the sky, clawing feebly at the fog. Singing softly to himself, Rajkumar put one step after the other and contemplated the sharp turns his fate had taken over the past year.
The need to get his magic back had made him a much kinder man. Yet nothing he did seemed enough for the Watchers. No amount of carrying weights for the elderly, reading to the unlettered, secretly paying school fees for poor children helped his case. There was no magic there, just decency.
Professional tricks didn’t count either. All science looks like magic when it works well. And the power that the Watchers had given him for a brief while was subtly different from magic, and he was expected to recognise that difference when the time came.
He was fiddling with a little electronic cube in his pocket, a prop for one of his tricks. Expert modulation of its surfaces created the best illusions onstage. Of course, Rajkumar’s nerves ensured he never got it right.
He saw the half-way signpost emerge out of the fog. The fog hid everything that was more than ten feet away. Rajkumar kept walking through this ghostly scene, weak moon above and the invisible river roaring against the pillars below.
A cat walked out of the wall of vapour and looked at him. Smelling no food on his person, it continued walking along the railing. A moment later Rajkumar saw the weak lights of an old jeep crossing the bridge, followed by the laboured clatter of its ancient engine. He stopped. The jeep was moving very slowly. He heard the cow vigilantes calling to one another as they spotted it too. He hoped there would be no violence. The men were truly out of control. One of them had ‘seized’ a cattle-truck and was driving it back to the others a few nights ago. His comrades did not recognize him in the fog and thought he was another unsuspecting victim. Which he became as they beat him to death.
The violence had taken a life of its own. Murder walked the roads with no mercy for anyone.
He heard the jeep whine to a halt. Its occupants had heard the vigilantes too. Rajkumar walked noiselessly towards it. There were a couple on the front seats. Behind them, a girl sitting by a blanket in the back. There was the unmistakable groan of a sick cow.
He leaned forward and saw the adults raise sticks at him.
“Leave us alone, you bastard”, said the woman through clenched teeth, “or I will make you regret it.”
“I am not here to harm you. The gau-rakshaks are across the bridge.”
“Sir, we have to cross the bridge and get to the vet, or the cow will die.”
Rajkumar saw tears in the girl’s eyes as she pleaded for the stricken animal. Just then, the cow groaned loudly. The girl hurriedly turned her attention back to it.
The damage was done.
“What was that?” they heard a faint voice say.
“It was a cow.”
“Let’s get them.”
“Wait here. They have to cross the bridge eventually.”
Rajkumar turned to the family in the jeep. His hand felt the little cube in his pocket. He had an idea.
“Listen carefully. I am going back, and I will try and drive them off. Count to twenty, very slowly, and then drive with the lights turned off. You cannot be seen. Have faith.”
“You would risk death for us?”
“Not for you. This is just your lucky day.” He looked at the girl and smiled. “What is your name, child?”
“Good luck to us, Barkha.”
He walked into the fog.
Hamid counted to twenty, very slowly, and started the jeep. They heard gunshots in the distance, and the sounds of men screaming. They heard motorcycle engines start and speed away. All this while, Hamid nudged the jeep along very slowly.
There was no one else on the bridge, and fear closed a clammy fist around their hearts as they drove on in the darkness. As they closed on the riverbank, they saw Rajkumar to the left, his arms held aloft. Gunshots flashed from across the road, and they saw some men crouching on the road to protect themselves. More men hid in the shadows beyond the range of the village streetlight at the end of the bridge. The gunshots continued and none of them dared move. Mili moaned again as they drove right past a man who stood with his back to the wall, but he neither saw nor heard them, judging from his total lack of reaction. Zeenat looked back towards the river. Somewhere in the fog was the man who saved them. They rounded a bend and turned into the vet’s lane.
Things were clearer from where Rajkumar saw them. As he walked towards the armed thugs, he pulled the little cube out of his pocket. In the right hands, it could create illusions that could truly terrify, let alone distract their audience. Rajkumar had never quite mastered its use, but it worked today. Concealed by the fog, he made the men think that they were being fired upon from outside. They had a very low threshold of fear. Sticks and swords would not help against gunfire. Some ran for their lives while others lay flat on the ground. The noise masked the jeep’s movements and they barely saw it move past. At that moment, a warmth rose up Rajkumar’s spine. The Watchers approved. He was getting his power back, right in the middle of this act of pure magic. Magic so powerful it let him perform a perfect sleight of hand. He cast a spell as the jeep left the bridge, and it was an invisible vehicle that drove past a man near the street light. With any luck, the little cow would survive, and the girl and her parents would be at peace.
He watched the remaining men stand up and run away, and contemplated returning home. He decided against it, at least until the girl called Barkha was safely home.
True magic entered the world that night, on the banks of the Rapti.
Mohammad Salman is a development communications professional and speculative fiction writer who divides his time between Lucknow. His works have appeared in the Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction and other anthologies. Salman counts Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov among his inspirations, dreaming of creating a legendarium of his own one day. His home is the dominion of a cat named Alif, who rules over a clutter that he variously refers to as his library and car scale model collection. In his free time, Salman tries to retake control of his home, watch motorsport or go birdwatching.