Evening came to Sumer. The last beams of the declining sun snagged upon the towers of the Forum, painting them golden and then blood-red. Then the sun was beyond the Wall, and the towers glowed a pale white. A stir ran through the City. The Circles packed up for the day. The Messengers trooped back to the Dooma, leaving behind their comrades on night duty. From the Carers’ Mandala of the Tenth, the children spilt out in either direction upon the Maliot Road, heading home. And from the furnaces of north Sumer, the ironworkers trudged back towards the Eighth, joining up on the way with the farmers returning to the Eleventh.

From the Forum, Mithila walked through the open gates of the Academy, past the quadrangle and into the main hall. The high, domed ceiling was lost in the darkness, and only a few lamps lit the passageway to the grand staircase. She sped up, taking the steps two at a time. At the top, she turned into the South Wing and passed down the corridor. From the open chamber door at the end, lamplight and the hum of voices crept into the passage.

“Look who’s late,” said Alvar, as she entered the chamber.

“I was called for an unscheduled mock exam. Some of us have a Qualifying Test, remember?”

“As if! The only one who’s ever made you late for a Young Tarafians meeting is Rama, and she is sitting here,” Lamon said. Laughter erupted the room.

“Oh, shut up,” said Rama from the corner, also laughing.

“Idiot,” said Mithila, as she took her seat, one of eight around a circular table. “Anyway, I’m here now. What intense discussion did I interrupt?”

“I was just telling them about the raids this morning,” said Shali from across the table.

Mithila pricked up her ears, looking at Alvar out of the corner of her eye. “Oh? Some insurrectionary literature in the Dooma, I heard? Is it a big deal?”

“Oh, I have the full story. Ma was talking about it at dinner.”

Shali swelled up at the prospect of a retelling. “So, last night someone tipped off the Elders that there was a cache of weapons in the Dooma – the Unforgiven, it seems, were having drills in the stone quarries, where nobody goes.”

“The Unforgiven? Savarian’s former army, the madmen of the Dooma? Do they even exist?”

“That’s what she said. So the Watch conducted a raid at Wallrise. They didn’t get the weapons, but they found an unlicensed book, and one of the Shoortans who was along for the raid swore that – “

“The Shoortans?” interrupted Mithila. “What were the Shoortans doing in the raid? This is a law and order issue, isn’t it?”

“Oh, I thought you knew? It was the Shoortans who tipped off the Elders – it seems one of the Acolytes was walking by the stone quarries and saw it all.”

Mithila clenched her fists underneath the table. “Right.”

“Yes,” Shali said excitedly. “And the book – this is the clincher – was actually about the Creation. It tells a different story than the Shoortans’ version of Malan and the raika – but they’re saying it’s a code for insurrection.”

“How very convenient,” Mankala said from the side, in her dry voice. “Want to get rid of some unexpected blasphemy? Just say that it’s a code for insurrection and let the Elders handle it.”

Shali shrugged. “They’ve started an investigation.”

“Do you know what was actually in the book?” Mithila asked.

“What story did it tell?”

“Even Ma didn’t know that,” Shali replied. “Only the investigating Elders – Raja, I think, and a couple of others – have seen the book.”

Mithila shook her head. “Very helpful. Well, if any of you First Mandala fellows see it lying around, take a look and let the rest of us know.” Chuckles spread across the table. “Now – if we’re done with this – are we ready to start?”

A stir went around. “We are,” said Chandra from across the table. “Are you going to try that experiment that you’ve been telling us about – the way of seeing?”

“I am,” Mithila replied. “But it’s going to be hard, so prepare yourselves.”

“We’re all ready.”

“Well, then. Let’s start. First, a prelude. I’m going to speak out some of the lines from Chapter Eleven of Taraf’s The Truth That Lies Beyond, the last thing he wrote before his ostracism.” She paused, her face turned up, her eyes half-closed. “’In Sumer,’ says Taraf, ‘the Wall is the end of all things. Whether you stand in the Maidan, or walk to the Forum, or wander into the open fields – or even if you ascend the Council Hall to the tallest tower – no matter how far you go or how high you climb, at the end of all things, you see the Wall.

‘But imagine, if you can, your eyes upon an unbroken world. There’s a word for such a thing. It is called “horizon.” Our dictionaries don’t have it. Our songs don’t sing of it. Our art doesn’t paint it.

‘But perhaps there is a way to imagine it.

‘Imagine yourself standing on the edge of Lake Sumer on a clear spring morning. In front of you, the Wall. To the north, the farmlands. To the south, the last scattered houses of the Fifteenth Mandala.

‘But now imagine all that gone. No farms. No buildings.

‘And no Wall.

‘Only water.

‘Only water, extending from your feet, everywhere. All you can see is sky and water, until they merge.’”

Mithila stopped. “Close your eyes.” She waited. A minute passed. “Can you see it?”

Shali was the first to shake his head. “It’s too difficult, Mithila.”

By his side, Chandra’s eyes flickered open. “I feel there’s a block. Most times, a word gives me an image. But phrases like ‘all you can see’, ‘everywhere’...I sense what they mean, but there’s no image. I can’t, you know, ‘imagine’ it.”

“You’re being too quick,” said Mithila. “There’s a way to do it – that’s why Taraf calls it a way of seeing. Wait, close your eyes again. Ready?” There was a murmur. “Now, think of Lake Sumer, as Taraf says. Imagine the water. How it swells and ebbs. The quiet sound of the waves lapping on the shore. The dusty light glinting on the ripples. It’s at your feet, the water; it lets you see the ground beneath, blurry, shifting. In you go, darker, deeper, the cold consumes you. And as you go further, instead of having the Wall and the fields simply vanish in an instant, gradually make them recede. And let the water flow in to fill the empty space. Slowly, watch them become smaller, watch them go farther, until –”
Shali gasped and his eyes flew open. “Mithila! I had it. For a moment, I had it. But then...”

Mithila leaned forward. “What was it like?”

Shali’s face had taken on a searching, faraway look, a look none of them had seen before. “Horrible. There was no...end. I felt as if something was filling up inside me, like my heart was about to burst. And I felt afraid. I had to...had to open my eyes.”

“These,” said Mithila, “are Taraf’s visions. Taraf – the only one who was able to recall the dreams of our childhood and give them words, words for us.”

“For all the good that they do,” Chandra cut in. He too had opened his eyes, unsuccessful.

The Wall

Excerpted with permission from The Wall, Gautam Bhatia, HarperCollins India.