In the village unsold horses stand by the dozens in dark, small rooms. The hand that dusts them sometimes and lets in the sunlight also lets the dust fall on the ground. It would be too much work to remove all the horses and sweep the floor and put them back again. The dust swept off the horses falls below and grows in thickness, piles up over the months and years, till the horses stand up to their chests in a forest of dust.
Above the closed rooms, the International Space Station moves swiftly across the dark night sky, the brightest and swiftest thing in the darkness after the moon.
It appears 10 degrees above North-North-West and disappears 10 degrees above South-East.
On the red soil plains of Bankura centuries ago, no one knows quite how, the fired clay horse became an offering to the gods. It was given in gratitude when a child began to crawl, offered so a wish could be fulfilled. It was found on the tombs of saints. The cow, the bull and the elephant lived beside all that was everyday. The horse was never everyday, never a fact, and the maker of the fired clay horse may never have seen one with his own eyes.
The horse is not native to these plains, or even to the subcontinent. It came from somewhere too far to walk, from as far away as the most unreasonable desire, the most devastating hope.
The horse came from Central Asia, very likely before the Aryans, but certainly with them over the mountains, as they moved into the subcontinent. Then centuries later again with the Mughals, and once more with the British, this time in ships over the sea. Many died from seasickness.
Thirty-one fired clay horses, almost three feet high, stand at the bottom of a banyan tree, an offering to the gods. They have wide jaws, long necks, stout legs, saddles carved with flowers and leaves, and small tails.
Leaving behind the red soil of Bankura, the horse enters living rooms, with its solemn, vigilant face, an object separated from its use, matter lasting so much longer than human gesture.
On the International Space Station an orange zinnia flower blooms.
In the fierce heat of May once, on this red soil parched with thirst, we looked deep into a well, into dark water which healed our scorched eyes, we saw ourselves reflected among yellow and brown fungus floating on the surface. Someone lowered a tin mug into it and scooped up the water, and we drank and drank, we quenched our thirst, and instead of being ill from the fungus and moulds we were well as never before, and when night came, we could see again, so we lay down on the red earth and looked up at a new sky of stars.
The horse was a wish for the power of the conquerors, even more it was a wish for boundless spaces, a wish for the inexpressibly wide and broad, for the whole earth as well as the skies, for the unharnessing of human life.
Every day, as it circles the earth, the International Space Station sees thirty-two nights and dawns.
Every day something else sets over the subcontinent along with the sun. Today it is the crouched man, sullen and taciturn. Hundreds of horses have sprung from his hands. There is mud on his feet, mud on his fingers, his skin is withered from working with water and earth. Crouched, he travels towards his own extinction. He wants to whip the future which is always somewhere else, wants to watch it whimper in terror, wants to shatter its complacent stride forever. Only the trees and rivers have a future that stays with them, wherever they are. He is jealous of the sun which will rise again. He crouches and turns his face away from the light, turning and turning away till his neck can swivel no further. His sons do not crouch near the potter’s wheel, with erect spines they leave to work as sweepers in humid, dilapidated, malarial government offices. The horses he made never looked him in the eye. Their gaze was always turned towards infinity. That same infinity that cares nothing for the movement of time, does not acknowledge the future, that crucible of fate. That same infinity that spills endlessly from the eyes of god. No moon and stars follow in the darkness that comes after the crouching man sets. Like other things become extinct, he rotates on his own axis. If he looked up he would see palm-leaf fans revolve, and scalloped bell metal bowls, and clay pitchers, each thing made by the hand, related like planets.
The Emperor Jehangir, with his hand on the flank of an Abyssinian zebra, revolves in that same darkness. The zebra was given to him as a gift in his sixteenth regnal year, 1621. Jehangir repeatedly touched the animal to see whether the stripes on it were painted. He had never ever seen anything like it before. ‘One might say that the painter of fate, with a strange brush, had left it on the page of the world,’ he wrote. Zebras still run in the plains and grasslands of Africa, Jehangir is conserved in his portraits and monuments, it is the awe that is extinct, part of a species of emotions in which the centre is outside the self.
Ustad Mansur, master painter at the Emperor’s court, painted the zebra at the Emperor’s orders. The zebra looks towards the right, held close within a border decorated with flowers and leaves.
The word ‘rta’ occurs 450 times in the 1,008 hymns of the Rig Veda. It has no exact counterpart in a modern language.
It is a kinetic word, a meaning field, expansive.
Rta is the wide and free space where the cosmos has its being, where all things in the universe can dwell. The dawn begins its journey from the dwelling of rta, and moves along the path of rta, as do the visions of the seers. The sun is its shining face. It is the safe path along which both light and men may travel. It is the innate attribute of things by which they are what they are. The rta of water is to seek a lower ground. It is an inner not an outer compulsion. It is truth in speech. The one who speaks according to the rta is rtavaka. Heaven and earth are rtavan, true to the rta. It is being which acts with that order and truth on which the cosmos rests, a coming together of cosmic and moral law. A flexible order, unrigid, not a point but a horizon.
But this order is precarious. The opposing word is anrta, the forces of darkness and enclosure and untruth, that cleave apart, slowly, the cosmos and the divine and the human.
Excerpted with permission from Extinctions, Sharmistha Mohanty, Context.