By: Zachary Swezy
Before the Fall
There was a focus committee forming for Chai City. He told them he wanted the townspeople to be made of little curry pies but the focus committee ended up being rather unfocused due to hunger. Things unfolded nonetheless.
Once the foundation was laid, the jasmine planted, and the smell of masala wafted through the air—it was properly Chai City and it was to hell with any unfocused focus committees. The people made out of curry pie ended up being people who ate a lot of curry pie which was quite alright, economically. A lot of objects were made out of gold which was the style of the times. So, these were aptly named the Golden Ages of Chai City.
Babar was regarded as lofty and magnanimous. His people knew him to be well-read and well-intentioned. As one of his first orders of business he nationalized a pickle factory for the people, but named it after himself. King Babar’s Pickle Factory was operated by a number of women he knew from his time in the restaurant industry. They specialized in chutneys and tinned fish. The nonperishables went well with the curry pies and every citizen received a quarterly payout from the company.
When Chai City was inevitably colonized and razed by invading Brits, as an elephant displaced, Babar found it in his best interests to move on in search of new stories. Everything was gone, except the pickle factory. A Brit and their kippers, as the saying goes.
Seeking shelter from his daily reality and a new home in the world after the fall of Chai City, King Babar was accepted into the refuge of Academia, not quite The Real World, which like the television show named after it, is oppressive with violence.
In school, he encountered the philosopher, Derrida, and the way human language tried to place people in the driver’s seat, separate from God and in the end quite separate from other men. He outlined the idea for a show called ‘Of Mice and Minerals’ in his notebook during the first lecture. It wasn’t very good but it had potential.
In his painting class, he learned that art can function in many ways. For most of Babar’s life the primary function was to glamorize or amaze. His collection in Chai City was huge and historic before it burned. When he learned in school that art can re-awaken us to the merit of life as we’re forced to lead it, he decided to spend his whole life understanding, through art, why he was forced out of his home.
Love and its loss
In poetry class, Babar Arvind, The Elephant in the Room, met Her. The one. The one who Muhammad Ali Jinnah had declared the national flower of Pakistan. Jinnah, nicknamed The Hummingbird by his acolytes, was so taken with the young beauty, Jasmine, her namesake was planted in every courtyard in the capital city. She wasn’t even Pakistani but no one was fazed. She was considered by many to be the unofficial princess of Pakistan and as such she felt very bored. Eventually, she got so aggravated that she went to art school. She studied hard, reached the top of her class, and once again became pigstuck with ennui. When the unofficial Princess Jasmine met the deposed King Babar, Lotus of Half-India, they were both severely tired. Once they hit it off, they spent a lot of time watching old movies and waiting for greatness to find them.
For six endless months the two students dedicated themselves to becoming bored of one another.
Babar could tell it was real love because she would watch bad reality television shows off his broken laptop screen with him. They couldn’t see a thing. When their romance ended it barely felt like an ending. He told her to work on her posture and she refused. It seemed a bit melodramatic to him but that was that. The climax of their relationship didn’t come until exactly one year after they parted ways.
Babar felt restless, as a lot of sophomores tend to. He bought a moped but that wasn’t cool and he wanted to stop doing Midnight’s Children stuff. He would not let himself be happy. Neither Jasmine nor Jesus could hold him permanently in their heart, not the way he wanted—and he couldn’t hold them either.
On the advice of a pink-haired witch named Angel Aglaomorpha, on the night of a strawberry moon, he cast a spell. That is to say, he took a poem from his notebook and lit it on fire. Then he prayed and prayed to God. Despite his skepticism the spell worked. Calamitously, It worked on a macroscale and in the completely wrong way, as spells tend to do. When Babar set out to reunite the Lotus and the Jasmine, he, silly as he is, forgot how universal that metaphor could be. It was a sloppy spell and a heavy-handed poem.
The morning after the strawberry moon, he rolled over to find his phone. Opening his News app, he could immediately see the effects of his spell. Pakistan had declared its undying love for India. They were to be wed. The amount of paperwork and political turmoil was untold. Muslim and Hindu families that had been fissured in the 40’s reunited at long last. The Hummingbird, former leader of the All-Muslim League and Governor General of Pakistan, turned over fifty times per second in his grave. He was moving fast as hell. Bengalis and Kashmiris stood befuddled, wondering where they fit in now. The ripple effects were innumerous, and brought Babar not an inch closer to his past love.
First on a whim and then with the noble goal of elevating journalism into Art, Babar boarded a plane headed straight to the Indo-Pakistani border. He wanted to collect all of the stories he could. Upon arrival, he remembered to call his school.
“I’m going to livetweet the reification of Indo-Pakistan.”
“Is That Art?” they asked. “It will be,” he answered.
His first tweets:
“Shit’s popping off.”
“Who’s in Indo-Pakistan?”
“The McDonald’s menu here is wild, bro.”
They received little attention. While “Indians make due when kush comes to shove,” and a photograph of himself by the Ganges captioned “Reporters and locals agree, this river does indeed smell crazy,” garnered middling popularity in low-brow circles.
They told him he could have three credit hours towards his independent studies and he could defer the rest of his classes until his return. They were very understanding of his plight.
One of his first basic observations was that Indians don’t typically eat cows, and Pakistanis don’t typically eat pigs. He didn’t really see how that would be such an issue until the state-mandated vegetarianism came into play followed by the black market meat, the chicken poachers, the bloodshed, the thousands slewn in the street, and finally the armistice known as The Great Goat Curry Caveat. Everyone could agree on loving goat curry.
From Kashmir to Mumbai, Kids Were Being Curried with Great Fervency, one headline read.
Years of observations took place. He made himself almost at home, nestled in the mountains. A lot of other journalists seemed to think that the reunion of India and Pakistan was more devastating than the separation. Alot disagreed. School felt like a different lifetime.
He became frustrated with them and himself. None of them were connecting the dots. One hand would say something partially true and the other would deny it all. He himself was failing to identify the cohesive themes of the embroilment. He read story after story, each one revealing itself as incomplete. It seemed a mess, not quite like war but not wildly different. When he did read a particularly stirring piece by one of his fellow journalists he’d grapple with his own insecurities.
In IndoPakistan, on many days the large elephant was beaten relentlessly for his effeminate manner of speech. People called him “Gaynesh.” Not everyone took kindly to his sorts. One day he grew bored of it and fled the border country and the Kush mountains and the river Ganges. With the sinking feeling about how the school would receive his tardy return, he was again desperate to find a new home. It was on his departing flight while reading the articles he and his colleague produced that he realized all of their stories together began to hint at the beautiful truth he was looking for. He realized then that it took a lot of stories just to tell one.
Art School Dropout
Because he neglected to check in with his professors for two years, Babar failed out of school. Mercilessly, they had also found a new pickle supplier. To cope, he attended art therapy, where he developed a rare candida yeast infection in his brain^.
With his savings dwindling, he decided to live in a leaf cutter ant colony due south of where he was in school. Unfortunately, they had no home for such a large elephant so he lived in the jungle chatting with them and recording their thousand and one stories instead. They had never seen someone so big before and they regarded him regally. The rent he paid was next to nothing and together they formed a modest company of mushroom farmers.
He felt right at home. The space was lush and secluded—the clay ruddy and malleable. It was a place the Gods had fled. Babar delighted in making Khôras with his small elephant mouth. He made amorphous statements, noises that danced around words and meanings.
If the blind runner Lavi Pinto had not hobbled up to Babar’s encampment, he may have transcended language, given enough time.
“Do you know where you are?” asked Lavi behind a pair of circular glasses with one snake curled around two darkly mirrored lenses in a figure eight.
“This is where I am. I live here with those very cool ants. They cut down leaves. See,” He showed him, “To feed their mushroom." He was sheepish, afraid to give this unstable man the wrong answer.
“Mushrooms? This is Wackistan! Mediocridad! Aren’t you bored?” petitioned Lavi with a loud flatness. Lavi had been blinded in the Helsinki Olympics by a few stray grains of sand.
Babar had never heard of those countries but they didn’t sound like great places for him to call home. Nothing seemed to compare to Chai City but he enjoyed frolicking with his boys here.
“It’s dreadful here. No single event can significantly change the total, you know?” informed Lavi. He stood and lectured—that was his thing.
Babar kind of knew but he thought Lavi was describing a lot of places. He tried to remember what little he knew about statistics.
“There is a place with black swans and dragon kings.”
The elephant’s hairs perked up tentatively. “It’s the opposite of here, it’s called Extremistan*,” coughed Lavi, rolling a cigarette.
Babar hesitated but finally decided to play along. “What’s it like? The place, I mean. Are there a lot of black swans or just the statistically probable amount**?”
Lavi exhaled curls of smoke and explained.
Apparently, Extremistan is a place equally as tyrannical as Mediocridad. The tyrants there are: The Singular, The Accidental, The Unseen, and The Unpredicted. It is a place subject to Type 2 Randomness. It literally produces black swans. Wealth, Scalability, Celebrity, Planetary Mass, and even humdrum Economic Data all reside there.
In truth, the tyrannical boredom he suffered in Mediocridad and everywhere else could make any place sound appealing to the former King. He was a real do-anything kind of guy, he thought.
“Tell me about the Dragon swan,” said Babar.
“Dragon Kings live beyond Power Laws,” Recited Lavi.
“Hm.” “Seriously, check the Wikipedia page!”
“They are events, large in size and unique in origin. Think: stampedes, forest fires, earthquakes, or smaller, brain activity.” Lavi soliloquized, “Dragon Kings are more predictable and even more profitable than black swans.”
“Lavi, if we are in Mediocridad as you say, what hope is there for us to escape the Tyranny of the Mundane?”
With venom in his eyes he said, “I can do acoustic levitation. I have a 3D bioprinter. Ok? T-cells on deck, man. I mean I have a degree in complexity sciences from the University of Chicago.” Babar saw doubt stinging at Lavi and draining him of his charisma. Their conversation came to a halt.
Lavi sat smoking in silence while his face contorted from one pained expression to the next. It occurred to Babar that Lavi had not seen himself in many years. He looked weird.
A Heroic Journey
“Listen,” said Babar, “I’m taking a brief sabbatical from my studies. I am doing self-guided learning. Those leaf cutter ants are teaching me some farming basics. I have a small patch of mushrooms if you’d like me to saute some. I also have them pickled.”
Lavi perked up when he ate. “Once we get to Extremistan we just have to produce more stories, more digressions—then we wait for the wealth to roll in. That’s how you make your own black swans.” He crunched into a pickled mushroom, smiling. “Look, you already refused your call to adventure.”
“Who are all these animals? When did I refuse what?” asked Babar.
“Before I met you. Haven’t you studied?”
“I have,” replied Babar.
Indignantly gathering up his belongings and packing them into his overnight sack, Babar asked about the stories they would produce once they reached their destination. Lavi rambled off narratives interminably. ---
“I thought you were blinded in Helsinki,” worried Babar as Lavi led the way through a dense forest, another piece of border country, this time between the mediocre and the extreme.
The longer Babar followed Lavi, the easier it was to see that Lavi had never finished a story in his life. Babar was in the same position he’d always been in: he was stuck with a man suffering his same delusions.
Just as Babar’s hopes reached their nadir, a large onyx swan cropped into his field of vision. He thought he had another rare infection in his brain but the statues soon started to outnumber the trees.
I think I’d like to be mediocre, Babar thought. Let the predictable become meaningful.
They reached Extremistan. Typical inhabitants were either gigantic, like Babar, or extremely small. Numbers paraded around without limits, completely unrestrained, even the lewd and lonely ones. “Totals” there were determined by a handful of extreme events. While history leapt forward like a tiger, and fluttered its wings like a hummingbird, it took the participants of history a long time and a lot of stories to understand what was going on.
After merely twenty minutes inside the city walls, Babar was approached by armed guards.
“Come with us, elephant,” said a tiny man dressed in all black, who spat when he walked. Babar looked back at Lavi, who was fist deep in a bag of grain, chatting gleefully with a man over the constantly fluctuating price of it. He felt like complying.
When they reached their destination, Babar was quickly made-up and rushed on stage where he was struck dead in the eyes with a spotlight. He was on a live-taping of This Indo-American Life. The audience wanted to know his story for some reason.
Babar did what the situation required. He told the audience about the siege of Chai City, the brave women of his colonized pickle factory, how he fell in love and how in his heartbreak he tried haphazardly to heal a whole nation and then document it for art school. Babar told them how he felt listless sometimes and thirsty for knowledge. In IndoPakistan he learned how little he really knew about geopolitics and how he came to love the tapestry he and his fellow journalist wove together in a very human and imperfect attempt to understand their shared history. He felt ambitious. Babar talked passionately about the mosaic he planned to craft out of the stories told by the leaf-cutters. Our hero discussed the blind sprinter and how he helped lead him to a conclusion. Rapt, the people wanted to hear more. He said he wanted to keep piling on regrets and forgetting them. He wanted to live his life in little yarns. He said he was tired of being bored and he was planning to give up the addictive substance, cold-turkey.
Overnight, his episode of This Indo-American Life became a black swan event. The elephant felt like a lottery winner. The event generated millions of stories. He did a book tour. He went on television. A production house eventually bought his story and syndicated it a staggering amount of times during Babar’s life. Once the Ayatollah Mitsubishi declared a fatwa against him, he knew he had made it.
Wealthy and famous, Babar visited school where they presented him with an honorary doctorate in Creative Writing.
When the king traveled to Indo-Pakistan he saw there was still turmoil heavy in the air and understood that people will live in a wound and have to make it their home. The logic of why love spells are always so tricky was firmly planted in his brain, but at what cost?
Lavi died pushing some boulder up a hill for one of his films. Babar had warned him, as his producer, not to do that sort of thing—but that didn’t make him any less sad to lose his mentor. Ultimately, when the elephant mustered up the resolve to return to Chai City, it laid in predictable ruins, tangled in bureaucratic holdups and endless discussions about parking and zoning. The lone chorus of a pickle factory’s many refrigerators filled the air and the ponds bred jasmine and lotus flowers so fragrant with stories of deep life in the undergrowth.
* You may blame the equally hated and loved economist Nassim Taleb for the stupid names
** Not very many
Zachary Arvind Swezy is a poet and author living in Chicago, IL. He has had work featured by The Poetry Foundation, Paper Magazine, RÚV, Maudlin House, and others. Some people seem to like him.