The Tongue and the Egg
The door was locked from the inside. I peered through the window slats and was startled. The room was dark, but a small ray of light from the porthole fell on the spot where my friend was tied to a post. A piece of cloth was stuffed into his mouth. His clothes were torn to shreds. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I observed other things. Two young men were searching the room. They were examining the floor, emptying the baskets, and breaking open the trunks. One of the men was short and the other tall. But both were dressed in khaki trousers, cream-colored shirts, and cherry-red sweaters. Despite turning the room over, it did not look like they had found what they were searching for.
They untied my friend and bent down to retie the laces of their shoes tightly. I realized that they were getting ready to leave. I shifted slightly to the right and stood against the wall. They opened the door and came out. Once outside, they looked around. As soon as they saw me, their eyes flashed with anger. Using my wits, I pulled a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and offered them one each. The short one smirked and, taking out a matchbox, lit my cigarette, then that of his companion and his own. I went inside and they sat down on the door ledge.
I hugged my friend tightly and asked him what had happened. But how could he have answered? The cloth was still stuffed into his mouth. I turned and looked beseechingly at the two young men. The short one got up and pulled the cloth from my friend’s mouth. He folded the handkerchief carefully and placed it in his pocket. I kissed his hand in gratitude and then moved back to my friend and whispered, “What is this all about?”
He did not reply. Suspicious, I forced his mouth open with my two hands and indeed his tongue was missing. Assuming a friendly manner, I put my hand in the short man’s pocket and asked, “What is the point of playing with this man? Let him be and give it back to him.”
“Give what back to him?” he asked flicking the cigarette from his fingers.
“His tongue, of course,” I said as I passed him another cigarette.
“But I swear I have not taken his tongue. Here look at this handkerchief,” and he took the folded piece of cloth out of his pocket and showed it to me. I grasped the handkerchief and shook it. I was convinced that my friend’s tongue would fall out. But there was nothing in the handkerchief. I then searched the man’s pockets, but they too were empty.
“Maybe he’s hidden it himself and is trying to blame us,” said the short one as he lit his cigarette.
“Where would he hide it? Wouldn’t it rot? If he owned a fridge, it would be a different story. Many wealthy people have stored their tongues in their fridges for safekeeping. They will be preserved and taken out when needed. If you have taken it, please give it back to this poor man.” I pleaded with him and searched his pockets again.
Meanwhile, the tall man approached us. Seeing me with my hands in his friend’s pockets made him angry. He scolded me, “What the hell would we want with his tongue? We were looking for eggs.”
“Eggs?” I asked in amazement.
“Yes, we have to collect six million eggs. We have only managed to get three million so far.”
“But what for?”
“What do you mean what for?” the men said and burst out laughing.
“I swear I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said seriously.
The short man took pity on me and my ignorance and said, “The new mansion will need marble chips; the mortar mixture will have to be prepared with egg whites. This will ensure floors that shine better.”
“Whose new mansion?” I asked again. My question seemed to amuse them even more and they doubled up in laughter, holding on to each other.
“Whose mansion, he asks?” they said and laughed again.
Dejected, I came back to my friend who was mending his torn clothes.
“Do you know whose new house this is?” I asked quietly. He did not reply.
“All right, were you informed that your house would be searched for eggs?” He did not reply. Belatedly, I remembered that he could not speak. I felt stupid and started to slink away with my head down. The short man grabbed my arm and asked if I was leaving.
“What else can I do?” I said.
“Are you just going to stand by and watch this atrocity?”
“What do you mean ‘atrocity’?”
“Look,” the tall man explained, “had we found eggs here we would have taken them. What would he have eaten and how would he have fed his children?”
“Well, you didn’t find eggs and he doesn’t have children,” I interrupted.
“Had he had children, we would definitely have found eggs here and we would have seized them. His children would have starved and died young. Is that not cruel?”
“But what can I do?” I asked.
“You have to speak out against this injustice,” said the tall man as he stood up. He appeared to have grown even taller. I wondered how he had entered the house through the small doorway.
The short man raised himself on his toes and asked, “Why don’t you raise your voice?”
I summoned every bit of courage in my body and asked, “Why don’t you protest about this?”
“What can we do? Our job is to raid people’s homes and collect six million eggs. Our hands are tied,” replied the short man. The tall one started wailing.
“When we go to search an innocent person’s house, when we take eggs from hen coops, when we rummage through people’s clothes, in case they have hidden the eggs, we ourselves are shaken.”
I kissed his forehead and wiped his tears with the handkerchief I took out of my pocket.
“Please wipe my nose too,” he sobbed.
I wiped his nose and then asked, “What should we do now?” He turned around and asked his companion the same question.
“I don’t know what to say,” was the response. “There is a holy man here; why don’t we ask him?”
We entered a small stone house. Inside, on a carpeted floor was a straw hut. The holy man, wearing red pajamas and a green shirt, was resting propped up on pillows. His white, flowing beard reached down to his feet. In front of him were piles of almonds and cardamom pods. A disciple wearing a black sherwani and a grey turban was massaging his feet. I touched the holy man’s feet and then looked up at him and begged, “My Lord, horrors are being committed. Someone is using egg whites to prepare floor polish. People’s homes are being ransacked and children have no eggs to eat.”
The short man picked up a fistful of almonds from the pile. “Truly, all kinds of horrors are being committed. Hens are now trying to hatch pellets of dirt instead of eggs.”
The holy man’s eyes filled with tears but his disciple was not in the least moved.
“If the hens are warm and loving and persistent in their efforts, even pellets of dirt will give birth to chicks,” he said.
The holy man looked at him and smiled. I turned to argue with the disciple.
“Pellets of dirt will never be transformed into chicks. For that, you need an egg. It is true, though, that machines can be substituted for the hens.”
The holy man turned to me and smiled again. The disciple and I continued to argue; neither of us was willing to concede. The short man sided with me and the tall man supported the disciple. What started as a verbal argument between the disciple and me turned into a fistfight between the two young men. With no resolution in sight, I turned to the holy man again and implored,
“Oh, holy one, you who can see the past and the future, tell me what is happening here.”
“What can he say?” said the disciple. “He has taken a vow of silence for a year. He will not speak.”
The holy man turned to me and offered me a few cardamom pods.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” I asked the disciple.
“Pop them into your mouth and chew them, and you will soon forget about the eggs,” he said and continued to massage the holy man’s feet. The three of us got up and left.
“Now what?” I said to the short one. “What?”
“I think we should go to the wise man,” said the tall one. I agreed.
The short one did not come with us. He had to go and arrest a person who had been caught hiding ten eggs. The thief was to be hung from the bridge. The two of us, the tall one and I, went into an old house and started climbing up the stairs. I managed to go up four flights of steps fine but then started to breathe heavily. The tall man threw me over his shoulder and carried me to the seventh floor. This was where the wise man lived.
The man was sitting at a table busy writing. In front of him was a cup of coffee. As the tall one put me down, I turned to the wise man and asked, “What are eggs for?”
“For eating of course, what else? Tell me would you like an omelet or an egg sandwich with your coffee?”
He reached into a drawer and pulled out two cups and a jar of coffee planning to make some for us. But I put the cups back in the drawer and said, “I have not come here to drink coffee, I have come in search of an answer to a question.”
“What is the question?” he asked.
“The question is if everyone has a right to eat eggs, how can one person be given the right to mix egg whites into the cement for his house?”
He gulped down his coffee, “That is not the fundamental question.”
“Then what is the fundamental question?” I asked in surprise.
He took off his glasses, pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his glasses clean before he put them on again.
“The fundamental question is which came first, the chicken or the egg.” The tall one nodded his head vigorously.
“This question has received considerable attention,” I said to the wise man, “but no one can say it is resolved.”
“And that is why I am pondering over it,” said the wise man as he started to scribble on a piece of paper.
“Do you think you will be able to resolve the question?”
“It is not necessary to resolve this question,” he said. “Just considering it carefully is enough.”
In frustration, I shouted, “Whether the egg came before or after is moot. The egg exists.”
“What do you mean by existence?”
I had no response to this question. I was quiet. The tall man shook me.
“Are you asleep? Tell us what to exist means?”
The shaking woke me up. I had truly fallen into a stupor.
“You have seen an egg but have you ever been inside it?” the wise one asked, passing his hand over my head.
“Have you?” retorted the tall man on my behalf.
“But of course, why else would I say this?” He took out the coffee jar and proceeded to make another cup. From the other drawer, he took out a plate with an omelet on it.
Nibbling at his omelet and sipping his coffee, he spoke, “There was nothing there. Just a void. The same void that is inside you, inside me, inside him, inside this room, in the heavens, and in the depths of hell.”
I started to feel sleepy again. The tall man shook me awake and led me out of the room. The short man was waiting for us outside. His duty hours were over, and he now wanted to hear what the wise man had to say.
“He didn’t say anything,” I responded. “Like the holy man, he too remained quiet.”
Hearing this the tall man roared with laughter and turned to his companion and said, “The wise one answered in great detail. How would this man know? He was sleeping.”
The short man started laughing too. Then one of them grabbed me by my right arm and tried to pull me to the right. The other caught hold of my left arm and pulled me to the left.
“He has to walk to the right. That is what’s best for him,” said one.
“No, he has to go left,” said the other.
I pulled myself away from them, freed both my arms, clenched my fists, and ran away. I ran through alleys, bazaars, gardens, and farms until I reached a wide-open field. On the other side of the field were many colorful mansions that seemed to be hiding among the trees. Shiny new cars were parked in front. In the field itself were vast crowds of people, cowed with their heads inside their phĕrăns, silent as if they were dumbstruck. Their silence gnawed at me, and I couldn’t control myself.
“Why are you in despair?” I asked. “Only one of you has been hung from the bridge yet. Who knows how many more await that fate? Only three million eggs have been collected yet. I know you have handed over all the eggs you had. But these people believe that you are hiding many more. Your houses will be searched again today.”
The crowd listened to me quietly. They did not respond or ask questions in return. I warmed to my subject.
“Don’t you know how important eggs are for people? Eggs have protein and vitamins. Your features are pale because you have been denied eggs. And that is why you have lost your ability to speak. But today you need to make a decision. Take your heads out of your phĕrăns and revolt. If you do not rise up now you will be crushed. Listen to the horns of the cars across the field. If you stay quiet like this, these very cars will crush you.”
I heard the sound of applause behind me, and turning around, I saw the tall man and the short man clapping vigorously. Without saying anything to either of them, I continued with my speech.
“Why would we let anyone take our eggs away? These eggs are for eating, not for mixing with cement in construction work. I have no idea who is grabbing our eggs, but whoever he is, we will not spare him.”
I noticed the crowd getting restless. They were rising in twos and threes, taking slips of paper from a man in white clothes, and crossing to the other side of the field. In a few minutes, the entire area was empty. I turned around and asked the two young men who the person in white was.
“That’s him,” said the short one. “Who?” I asked, not comprehending.
“How come you don’t understand anything easily,” admonished the tall one.
His anger made me realize a few things, and I asked another question.
“Why was he passing out those slips of paper?”
“These are entry permits for the mansions,” said the short one. “What are these people going to do in those mansions?”
“We’ll have to see,” said the tall one.
They grabbed me and took me along with them. We entered a long corridor in one of the mansions. Here were the people who I had just been lecturing, lying flat on the ground, licking the floor with their tongues.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“What do you think they are doing?” said the tall one. “The floor of this corridor has been constructed with the egg mixture in the cement. They’re licking it in order to get the vitamins and proteins from the eggs into their bodies.”
I observed the scene carefully. People were lying flat on their stomachs like upside-down corpses. They were absolutely still; no part of their bodies, arms or legs, were moving. Only their tongues were working steadily. The tongue would emerge, lick the floor, and retreat back into the mouth. Only to emerge and lick the floor again. I continued to watch this scene until the man dressed in white came in. He swept his palm across a corner of the floor and, turning to the tall one, said, “Looks like the polish is good.”
“Sir, there is no need for grinding machines now. We don’t lack manpower in this country,” the tall one remarked.
“And when the spit mixes with the egg, the polish takes on a different luster,” offered the short one.
Then all three of them came outside. I stood alone in the hall and saw my reflection in the shining floor. The image was grotesque, and I was frightened. Did I really look like that, I wondered. Or was the floor defective? But who could I ask? There were many people there but what could they say? Their tongues were busy licking the floor. There was silence all around. I debated whether I, too, should remain silent, but realized that between my friend and me, I alone had a voice. His tongue had been pulled from its roots, mine was still there. So how could I refrain from speaking? I decided to ask whoever I came across if my face was truly disfigured, or was it the egg and spit-polished floor that was deceiving me?