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Fragments from a lost manuscript

This story was published in the anthology “In Pursuit of the Perfect Gourmet Garam Masala,” Skrev Press 2007, UK.

Sometime in the year 2131: By the time Indian astronomers discovered a distant planet that had a 99% possibility of hosting intelligent life — a planet they named Durga in honour of its ten moons — visitors from that planet had already arrived and established a sprawling base on the beds opened up by the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. From this base, cloaked from Human and other Earthbeing eyes, ten expeditionary teams spread out, like the goddess Durga’s arms, across the subcontinent surveying territory and cataloguing artifacts that didn’t conform to their initial notions about Earth. The data was transmitted back to their home planet so that researchers could determine the precise moment when the visitors ought to break cover and reveal themselves.

The mission dispatched down the riverbed of the Brahmaputra towards its old delta territory — now a dried-up semi-desert land — came upon a memory disk with contents that mystified them. The sectors they were able to restore seemed to contain fragments of a dictionary or some sort of encyclopaedia. They transmitted the text home and awaited further instructions.

Word came back: “This cannot be what it appears to be. It must be some type of coded message. Our computers will work on decryption. Meanwhile, please try to inquire, what is the meaning of this concept called ‘sin’? Humans seem obsessed by it: either defining, committing, obscuring, hiding, and expiating — all frequently by the same person.”

A Catalogue of Sins Known to Humankind

Chapter 7: Sloth

Aardvark

Dateline London, June 2, 1889. A fierce debate is in progress over the naming of an animal recently discovered by white settlers in southern Africa. In a smoke-filled, leather-lined conference room formerly owned by the East India Company, twelve distinguished gentlemen have gathered. They include newspaper editors, publishing magnates, the chief biologist at the Royal Society for the Naming of Obscure Animals (RSNOA), a couple of dictionary indexers, and a lawyer hanging at the elbow of every other person.

The debate is between the proponents of aardvark, Afrikaans for earth pig, and the partisans of ant bear. This was not a scientific debate, the representative of the RSNOA kept reminding the group. Indeed, biologists had agreed that the ant bear, native to the Americas, was the myrmecophaga jubata, while the African animal was called the orycteropus afer. But the fifth time the man interrupted, he was ejected as superfluous to the task at hand.

N. Verforst who arrived on a ship from Capetown five days ago is representing the campaign for aardvark. On his journey he had picked up a bad case of the hiccups and by the time he landed in London, he had lost his voice. It was for the best, because even at his healthiest, the man’s English sounded like he was eating each word as soon as he uttered it. He has come accompanied today by the highest paid barrister from Winston’s Inn, a man who has never lost a case in his 60-year long career.

The jovial Charles Kavemann, Esq. is making the case for ant bear. He represents the publisher of the Super Compact Hip Pocket English Dictionary. He makes a very simple case, though it is one that would be better suited for Hyde Park or even Parliament but not for this gathering of powerful gentleman. He says, “Adding unnecessary words, where perfectly reasonable ones already exist, simply expands the proliferation of verbiage in the language, making it inaccessible to all but a highly literate elite.”

What he does not say is that the first signature of his employer’s dictionary, starting with the article ‘a’ and going all the way to ‘amnesty’, has already been printed in 5,000 copies. The publisher hopes to make a killing with this dictionary intended for mass sales in the colonies, among Macaulay’s children, the clerks being trained across the empire to entrench the British administrative system. One of the first markets is Africa, and the publisher knows that the clerks there urgently require a word for the large nocturnal, burrowing animal that feeds on ants and termites.

Kavemann did not stand a chance.

The jury of three who would decide this case all had huge investments in the paper and publishing industries. They had provided the capital for both the multi-volume Imperial English Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia Victoriana. Their pecuniary interests lay not in succinctness but verbosity. The more words, the more paper would be sold.

Kavemann made a fatal error in his argumentation strategy. He was a man of few words himself and he refused to exert himself any more than was absolutely necessary. He was fully cognizant of the gossip about his indolence, but he had proved, many years ago, that a life of few words and an easygoing manner had its achievements. Twenty years earlier, when he was just a young man starting his legal career, with a brief of only ninety-nine words, he had won the first of many cases that had given him his extravagant confidence today. In that celebrated case, he had managed to restrict the words for another small burrowing animal to two. (See Rabbit below.)

But even the best argued case would not have won this contest for Kavemann. He had lost before he even walked into the room. Every gentleman assembled here, except for Kavemann and his publisher, had received by special courier yesterday a small velvet bag containing an exquisite 10-carat diamond, fresh from the mines of South Africa. Verforst had brought the diamonds because such had been the decision of the group he represented, the Broderbund, a secret group of Afrikaners formed with the goal of a white empire across the southern quarter of Africa. Their purpose was a far cry from the penny-pinching objective of Kavemann’s backers. They reasoned that if aardvark was approved as the common English name for the animal, then the first word in the English lexicon, after that pesky article ‘a’, in other words, the first real word in the English dictionary, would be a word proclaiming the existence of the Afrikaner to the whole world. It would help signal a future where on the ashes of the decaying British Empire, a new, more powerful and determined Afrikaner empire would dominate the planet, ready to carry on the civilizing mission of Europe which had been on the retreat because of the liberal, native-coddling policies lately emerging from Whitehall.

(Postscript from editor: historians would later recognize that the debate over the Aardvark was the opening shot of the Boer War. The extreme wing of the Broderbund would use the defeat in that war to purge Verforst and his faction, arguing that the debate over the Aardvark had been a total waste of resources. They charged that the Afrikaner representative would have better spent their investment and time in London buying weapons and bribing politicians instead of some trifling battle over a word.)

Caveman: cheerful/tearful

Dateline London, October 12, 2053. Through painstaking genetic and genealogical work, assisted by National Geographic and the Church of Present Day Sinners, a breakaway scientific faction of the Mormons, it has been determined that the 19th century celebrity lawyer Charles Kavemann’s line can be traced to a Stone Age tribe in southern England. Through reconstruction of fossil evidence and creative interpretation of fables and ballads native to this region, it is speculated that while the rest of the tribe went off to hunt boar or deer and to build stone monuments that would keep the world puzzled for centuries (at least until a late 20th century newspaper called News of the World revealed their alien planetary source), there was a character known as the cheerful caveman who was content to sit in his cave, investigating different plants and shrubs, burning their leaves and inhaling the vapours. He discovered certain plants were best for doing the job the tribe had assigned him, which was to name the fruits and animals they would bring back from their hunting and gathering.

The cheerful caveman is also said to be responsible for keeping a unique symbol for the sound ‘ee’ out of the English language. His twin, the tearful caveman, had made the case for at least two more symbols to represent the vowel sounds ‘ee’ and ‘oo’, but he made those symbols excessively complicated. The homebound brother argued that it needed the blood of two hares to write out those sounds, while doubling the single vowels ‘e’ and ‘o’ would represent a considerable savings for the tribe. It has not yet been determined how this debate was settled, but there is considerable evidence, beyond the obvious, that the tearful twin lost. Ballads suggest that he was banished from his community along with his unique symbols. A recent discovery of a mummy in the tectonic earth shift in Bengal suggests that the tearful caveman might have ended up there. (See Mummy below). How he may have found his way there is undetermined, but some experts suggest that he may have hitched a ride with the same extra planetary travellers responsible for the local stone monuments. Otherwise, the proof is slim. Linguists point to the existence of unique symbols for ‘oo’ and ‘ee’ in the Bengali language. DNA testing is under way to conclusively settle the matter.

Hyacinth

Hyacinth – a plant fabled to have sprung from the blood of Hyacinthus, a beautiful youth loved by Apollo, who accidentally killed him with a discus. The flower’s petals are said to be marked by symbols spelling Alas!

Hyacinth is also the name of a beautiful young Jamaican girl who worked at the 7-11 on Broad Street in South Providence in the American state of Rhode Island. In 1997, William Kavemann, a portly retired cataloguer at the British Museum, received word of an inheritance. A distant relative who had emigrated to the U.S. had left him the 7-11 franchise on Broad Street. Not knowing anything about running a business, and not especially caring about it either, William hired Hyacinth Jones to do all the work. At first, not knowing any better, and used to looking at white people in awe, especially white people with English accents, Hyacinth did exactly as she was told. She kept the accounts, taught herself an accounting software package, cleaned up the nightly mess, opened and closed up each day, seven days a week. Within six months, she had learned everything she needed to know about running a convenience store in South Providence. When the gas station across the street shut down, she married George Clinton, the Liberian man who bought the property, and convinced him to open a branch of the Git-n-go, the first of its kind in New England. Meanwhile, William Kavemann found Iris Winston, a young Trinidadian girl, to replace Hyacinth. But Iris turned out to be a copy of her employer, more used to bacchanal than effort, and within one month, the Git-n-go had driven the 7-11 out of business. It is rumoured that William Kavemann took his pension and retired to an opium den. (See Opium Den below). His last words to her, when Iris presented him with a parting bouquet of hyacinths, were “Alas! Alas!”

Mummy

Dateline Comilla, December 16, 2053. While the climatologists had been warning of the imminent danger of rising seas washing away half of Bangladesh, the seismologists’ reports were being systematically ignored. But they ended up being proved more prescient in their forecasts. A giant tectonic shift scrunched the Bengal delta from east to west, and a mountain arose at the intersection of 90 degrees longitude and the Tropic of Cancer, in a district known as Comilla. For this disaster, Greenpeace is now blaming the incessant drilling for natural gas that had become frenzied in the first two decades of the current century.

While a hundred million people, who had survived the earth shakes, scrambled for refuge in India, Myanmar, Tibet and China, taking advantage of recent highways built to expand Chinese influence in the region, they left Bangladesh to the crippled and the old. Hordes of young men and women from North America descended to this tragic place. First came the volunteers to assist in relief and rehabilitation. But once their stories zipped across the Internet back home, a new group of North Americans began to arrive. They came to explore the new landscape, especially Mt. Comilla. One of the expeditions came upon a cave, and inside they found a mummified body. Carbon testing dated it as a Stone Age human. Initial DNA testing strongly suggested that this human shared significant genetic signatures with a tribe historically traceable to southern England.

One team of scientists had noted that salty tears had frozen into the mummy’s face. Archaeologists from the University of London, working in tandem with the Department of Oral History, are convinced that this body is that of the legendary tearful caveman who was banished from Albion, along with his symbols for ‘ee’ and ‘oo’.

For months, the British media has run only stories about this tearful caveman and the Mummy of Mt. Comilla. This is said to be the greatest historical discovery of the mid-century. Meanwhile the news of refugees and survivors of the tectonic shift and the earth shakes have been moved to the back pages of the newspapers or pushed off the news stories to the “News in brief” sections of the media. “What’s newsworthy about a tragedy in Bangladesh?” asked Rupert Murdoch II. “Didn’t one of our novelists, back in 2000, call this country an example of a cosmic joke?”

Opium Den

A place where the Kavemanns go before they die. This is where Charles came after he lost the aardvark battle with the Broderbund. And this is where William retired to after he lost his 7-11 to the charming and beautiful Hyacinth Jones. It is even speculated that a cousin of Charles set up the first opium den, outside China. This was the work of Vincent Kavemann who settled in Calcutta in the final days of the East India Company. He had toyed with the idea of starting a chain of such houses across the empire, but sadly he became his best customer and lost the élan for the venture. The Imperial Tobacco Company briefly considered the option, but rejected it as a risky proposition, especially after the Governor General restricted and licensed the sale of opium. The market was then left to the Banerjee and Mukherjee Group who set up opium dens next to their milk stores.

At the early start of the Bengali migration to North America, circa 1981, an enterprising branch of B&M, now a transnational conglomerate, located a nearly bankrupt Newport Creamery on Broad Street in South Providence. They quickly snapped up the property. B&M headquarters in Calcutta began to keep tabs on the drug legalization debate in the U.S. When the film Traffic was released, their man in Washington informed them that within 14 years — the timing had been chosen by an astrologer — certain drugs would be legalized in the U.S. B&M decided to buy the old Victorian house next to the Newport Creamery. They imported ten families evicted from Nondigram in West Bengal to rehab and furnish the Victorian in a style reminiscent of a 19th century opium den that had been established by Vincent Kavemann.

Rabbit

Until 1817, the English language had been littered with 15 words for the animal the world now knows as the rabbit or the hare. These included big ears, fluffy, hopalong, long hind legs, and even something as novel as bugs bunny. Charles Kavemann, fresh out of Lincoln’s Inn, led the charge against this mockery of the language. He was lucky to make his case in a brief moment of democratic opening in English politics. He argued that if the rabbit case lost, then the floodgates would be thrown open to a vast expansion in the number of words in the English language, and the masses could forget about ever owning concise or school dictionaries because the dictionary market would remain entirely monopolized by the publishers of the Imperial English Dictionary (then running into 17 volumes).

Time

“Time: there is always more of it where it came from.” December 25, 1900. The last words of Vincent Kavemann on his deathbed in his opium den on Middleton Street, Calcutta.