Sunya

" 'void', 'nothingness', a symbol of brahman and nirvanam... the unifying point of indifference and the matrix of the All and the None" Very soon my corpse will be ashes, the substance of my heart, my hands, my eyes and brain swept upwards in a reek of ghee and sandalwood. I can imagine this event. I can imagine its aftermath, the particles of my body tumbling over the land in the hot weather. I see my ashes settling on earth somewhere, sinking into the soil. A peck of dust reabsorbed into the mother, ready to be remade as - as what? As a drinking cup or a bowl. A sword. A bolt of cloth. The world shuffling its substance, spitting out another form like dice falling from a shaker.

Of the things that are mine, my voice will be the last to vanish. A word, a vibration of sound travelling off into the void. I send out these words, each one a tiny bubble of meaning, straining towards the moment when its surface will collapse into nothing under the unimaginable pressures of time and space. One by one they shall vanish. Then silence.

A few days ago the rains came. From my window I have been watching as the river swells and the parched red land turns green. At night I lie on my charpai listening to the fat drops drum on the roof, a sound like the galloping of cavalry. The unseen garden is busy with insects and the wall by my side is spongy-soft, cold and wet as a water-carrier's goatskin. In the darkness, under the brush of my fingertips, the wall seems to breathe. I catch myself thinking how odd a time this is to die.

Perhaps. Death only seems surprising if, as when I reach out at night and touch my bedroom wall, I am trapped in the present moment. Escape and I am reminded that all this colour and moisture, all the pulse of new growth, will not last. A few waxings and wanings of the moon and once again the earth will be copper and the sky a block of hot stone. A common-place idea, yet it would have troubled me once. Now I am content with the thought of negation, even of my own negation. It brings no sadness with it. Something goes to nothing. Making goes to unmaking. The wheel turns, harnessing negative and positive in a mechanism of eternal generation, a flowering.

I am interested in mechanical things. I have built many of them myself.

I once built a clock, consisting of a number of brass jars suspended on a wooden wheel. Filled with water, they rotated in a precise sequence, each one tipping its contents into the next and so moving a series of cogs and levers. The mechanism turned an enamelled dial decorated with the figure of a panther. In the slits of its eyes, figures standing for the hours of the day could be read off.

I built a message-keeper. It was made in the form of a silver flagon inside which were millions of tiny glass beads, suspended in a clear gelatinous solution. To use it you breathed your message into the flagon's mouth and stopped it up. When the recipient uncorked it, the beads vibrated and the sound of your words were released. In this way I preserved the voices of the dead. That was important to me, at the time.

I designed another message device, but never constructed more than a tiny prototype. I had the idea after spending the afternoon watching a spider build a web. Imagine such a web, fashioned from crystal, spread over a town, or a province, or an entire empire. Imagine light of different colours and intensities transmitted through these filaments, modulated in such a way as to carry meaning. How perfect! How beautiful! Yet my model web measured no more than an arm's span. It functioned as I planned, when stimulated by my system of optic sources. Yet it was just a toy to amuse the king, who could never grasp its true use or significance.

I built a calculating engine, using humming birds, silver coins and tiny loops of fragrant khus grass. The same device, with minor modifications, could be used to perform basic astrological predictions. At court I was richly rewarded, His Highness at least realising the importance of tracking the motions of the heavens. Encouraged, I worked on a method of measuring the distance from the earth to the moon, using a prism, a quantity of crushed mother-of-pearl, and a bowl of quicksilver. I had an idea for a means of actually making the journey there (it was not too far), but my master the sovereign would not hear of it. He gave me herds of cows and richly-harnessed horses, and told me to think of other things. When I demurred, he sternly bade me return home and find for him - of all things - the chemical formulation of jealousy.

Jealousy! What a ridiculous idea.

Still one does not disobey the monarch, and I spent three fruitless years on the task. The physical basis of the emotions eluded me, though I brewed and titrated, heated and filtered, centrifuged and separated every substance from uncut rubies to the hearts of newborn baby chicks. I discovered many other wonders as byproducts of the research, its progress speeded by the assistants my new wealth enabled me to hire. I found cures for plague and sleeping sickness, a way of reconstructing the faces of lepers, and at the secret behest of the Rani mixed an ointment from the crushed carapaces of black beetles that, when spread on the member of generation, ensured the birth of healthy children. Despite her praise, I became listless and bored.

Finally the king gave up his foolish obsession with jealousy, an obsession stimulated by a particularly acrobatic nautch girl and quelled by the childishly simple expedient of executing her other lovers. At last I was able to return to my own true love, the study of mechanics. I fell to building automata, constructing a number of brass dogs and falcons and a chess-playing warrior which I gave as a present to the King. He in turn presented it to one of his generals, in recognition of some victory or other. This annoyed me. I felt underappreciated. Looking back, I am astounded by my pettiness. I had become soft and spoilt. My vanity led me to expect exaggerated deference from those around me. I would fly into rages if I was contradicted, and spent hours poring over imagined slights and humiliations. Yet all of that was soon to be wiped out. All of that thoughtless life, the life I believed was so profound, was to vanish without a trace.

The war changed everything.

We were invaded by a huge army, raised by one of our Northern neighbours. We saw it first as a vast black cloud, a pall of smoke from burning crops and villages which blotted out the sun. The darkness terrified the townspeople, who began to shut up their houses and bury their valuables beneath the floors of their houses. Their fear worsened as they saw the dreadful condition of the refugees who flooded through the gates, their wounds bound with strips of bark, hastily-wrapped bundles of possessions on their backs. From the city walls we soon saw the glint of metal and felt the vibrations of the horde as it moved closer. In the temples the priests poured libations of milk over the gods and smeared their mouths with spices. The libations turned sour, and the spices to blood and excrement. Some of us began to feel cold, to guess what was fated for us.

At last we saw the army itself. The shock of its immensity splintered our perceptions, overwhelming our minds so that we could only take in details. How could we ascribe a proportion to this phenomenon? How could we think of it as one thing? It dwarfed the operations of our senses. We noticed the swaying houdahs of the generals, the flick of their flywhisks as they directed operations from their armoured elephants. We saw the scythed wheels of the chariots, the bobbing crests on the helmets of the cavalry, the ranks of footsoldiers charging forwards to break on our defences like the waves of the sea. We thought to ourselves - many, all, infinite, grains of sand, attributes of the gods. We looked at each other, and knew the meaning of our looks, the fear, the realisation - now comes the collapse, the failure of thought..

Nothing could equate to the terror of that war, no act of witness or truth-telling. It was unimaginable, unnameable, an event that exceeded all words and formulations. Things were done which will never be encompassed by language, even the allusive language of poetry which steps sideways towards its subjects and allows meanings to grow through the gaps in words. What use to outline the losses we suffered? What use to name the horrors we saw, or the horrors we perpetrated ourselves as the conflict grew more bitter? We were crushed. We were annihilated. Our towers and palaces were razed to the ground, our gods toppled, our tongues torn out of our mouths so we could no longer recite our stories.

Severed head. Blackened stump of a tree. Charred field. A crow, picking at the body of a child. No, it is no use. The list could carry on forever and still have no value. A mouth opening and closing. The idiocy of pure sound.

We were annihilated. That is to say, we were made nothing. And yet somehow I survived. Through chance, cowardice, bravery or treachery, what does it matter which? I stood, a living body amidst the ruins, a collection of matter still miraculously held together despite the violence which had swept over my head. I sat down in the dirt, indifferent to my survival. I smeared myself with ashes. For a long time I did not move or speak.

Something becomes nothing. A circle in the sand. When my surroundings became distinct to me, this is what I saw. A circle. The round rim of my wooden begging bowl. I scratched in the sand with a stick, while around my head fluttered fragments of the past, humming birds and palaces, rubies and running water, all so many silly ornaments fit only for children's stories. To the nine signs of numeration, scratch, I add a tenth. The sign of nothingness, the sign of the nothing that is something. The sign of that which has no qualities except existence. The sign of myself.

I could have told you my name, but what would be the purpose? I could have told you my age, my sex, my caste. I could have numbered and named my children, my city, the titles of the dynasty of kings to whom I once owed allegiance. All these things are illusion. I have uttered a syllable which names the void, and it would be foolish to expect immunity from its operation.

Sunya, zero, nought, the wheel. This is the true building. All the works of the future will be built on the foundation of nothing, each figure transported to a higher plane by the addition of a circle in the sand. Put the void into operation, and watch the generation of life. I have seeded sunya through the slowly-rebuilding city, and even as my speech dies into silence it is taking hold. Nothing, scratched onto tablets. Nothing, numbering our stores of grain. I like mechanical things. I once built many of them myself. But unmaking is my final making, and like everything created I find myself falling into the void. The walls breathe and I unravel. My fame, the record of my works and all their rotting remains. These have already disappeared. My appearance, my name, my body, the bubbles of my words. Dust motes in a column of sunlight, ashes tumbling over the hot, dry land.

This story was written for performance at the Zerozerozero exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery 1999