Automatons Of Ayodhya

Sourabh Bhambhani was an enterprising clock-smith who, apart from showing great mastery over tiny gears and fine machinery, had a unique skill to offer. He would claim that he could successfully fix any broken watch, clock or machine. “Anything that moved once, can move again”, he asserted in bold letters on his flyers.

But in reality he worked from a very tiny shop, near the busy Bombay Courthouse, with enough room for just one more customer besides himself. The walls outside his shop were plastered with his own flyers, his exaggerated claims visible even across the street and on windy days the words on the flyers would fly far and wide, on some occasions even across the vast ocean, to far away obscure places.

And quite often one could find a tall Englishman or a lovely Victorian lady, bent and waiting, patiently observing him working through a pocket watch or a rare gadget that they brought all the way from back home. This was the year 1939.

Every machine in it’s heart holds the deepest secrets of its creators”, Sourabh would say while carefully examining the small shiny golden gears with his eye piece, always managing to uncover the secret.

A human heart cannot be fixed but a machine’s heart always can be”, he would quip.

One day, he received a strange letter that also contained an address and a map. It had the following contents:

“I need your help to repair a very old machine. I cannot bring it to your shop. It is a matter of life and death. Will you visit us on 11th May?”

11th May was two days away. And even though the sender could just be a thief in possession of an expensive watch, something tempted Sourabh to accept the offer.

So on the fateful day — 11th May of 1939 at 8 am, Sourabh took the early morning tram to the land of Kumbars and reached its entrance. He then carefully followed the hand-scribbled map given to him, walked through the narrow maze-like roads, lined with red burning broken clay pots. The lanes of the slum were like a labyrinth, every turn leading to a narrower lane and making the memory of the previous lane disappear.

For a second Sourabh felt he was walking inside one of the watches he repairs. “Am I walking towards the centre of a giant watch?”, he wondered.

He finally did reach the address and was welcomed by an old man, the sender of the letter. The old man looked a little foreign. He had an unusual pair of green eyes and a kind sombre look. “Thank you for coming. Please come inside.”- he said in a soft, gentle voice. Sourabh, curious, followed him and entered his small shack.

And in there lay something Sourabh had never seen before in his 17 years of working as a clock-smith. A human sized wooden lady, lying down on a bed, covered with a thin tattered blanket. The wooden lady turned, nodded at Sourabh, acknowledged him and thanked him for his presence. She moved at a strange slow pace and yet her movements felt non-mechanical. She felt alive!

“She has increasingly become slower over the last few weeks,” informed the old man. “If things progress at this rate, very soon she will go completely still.”

Now over time, Sourabh had seen complicated automatons like a wooden hen that could peck grains or dancing ladies who could match steps on a stage, and even a horse that drove carriages. He had seen clocks that followed unusual decimal times or whose hands moved counter clockwise, and had also seen robot automatons that worked as sentries for a bank.

But an independently operating automaton with an awareness of the world was completely unheard of.

Sourabh examined her. Her smooth flawless woodwork indicated that she had been created using techniques much more advanced than he had ever encountered. He searched for a joint that could give him access to the wooden lady’s inner workings but he couldn’t find any. He marvelled at its beauty and also wondered how could a life-size wooden woman, a wonder of the modern world, an engineering feat of the highest order, even exist. She should probably be celebrated by kings and patrons alike and yet she is here : in the darkest, poorest corner of the world.

Sourabh told the old man that in order to inspect her he might have to drill through her chest. The old man went and whispered this to the wooden lady who turned and stared at Sourabh. Her wooden gaze, even though kind, made him shirk away.

The old man came back to Sourabh and said, “Thank you, but I think you should leave.

What? Why?

Her body cannot be drilled- even after her death,” the old man said. “Is there any other way you can help her?

Since she is an advanced machine, she could narrate the secrets of the people who built her, and maybe I could help her without opening her. After All ”, he said, “Every machine in it’s heart carries the secrets of it’s creator. And it is that secret we need to uncover”.

The old man hesitated, but then began telling Sourabh the tale of her origin.

***

This story goes back to a fateful morning of the year 1917 when a large boat came floating on the river Sarayu of a small obscure town called Ayodhya. After initial investigations it was found that the boat was filled with 72 soldiers of the war. These soldiers reeked of alcohol and suffered from a respiratory disease. Coughing, gasping for breath, still in their bright red uniforms, they were piled and left to die and the wandering boat found its way to the town.

The generous governor decided to welcome the foreigners and undertook the responsibility of bringing these soldiers back to their good health.

However, little did the doctors assigned know that these warriors were suffering from the infamous Spanish Flu and within a matter of two weeks the entire town was under the grip of the same ghastly disease. Old men, young nurses, pregnant women, infants, doctors, businessmen all came under the grip of this deadly flu and soon their main hospital’s corridors were lined with ailing patients waiting to be attended by the caregivers. Many nurses also caught the deadly flu and there was a shortage of people, especially the hospital staff who could attend to the sick.

The governor’s sister was a young lady named Ayodhya, who was lovingly named after the town by her father. Growing up Ayodhya showed a fascination for toys and one day her doting father gifted her a small wooden bird, painted yellow in colour. The wooden bird became Ayodhya’s best friend and accompanied her everywhere. One day, on seeing a real bird the young girl was fascinated with the idea of giving life to her toy. That innocent quest led her to Taxila, where she went dressed as a man tying her breasts with a tight cloth and learned under the famous automaton maker Aryavarta.

Aryavarta belonged to the Vishwakarma school who called its automatons Yantras and they took great pains in hiding the craft behind their inventions. The machines made by this school were impermeable and exemplary and contained the distillation of all the knowledge of humankind. In the world, only twenty five people knew what Ayodhya was learning and she swore an oath of secrecy and celibacy, before the knowledge-sutras were imparted to her.

Inventions made with love contain the goodness of the creator”, Aryavarta would tell her. “And your inventions would be the purest of them all”.

After mastering the techniques Ayodhya returned back to her town and created useful inventions like wooden self-propagating ships, carts and self-transporting houses. (She however decided to keep her toy bird as it is. “It is already alive for me”, she would say to herself).

In the present time, however, Ayodhya felt heartbroken on seeing the whole town fallen to the flu. She would hear about the conditions of the patients, their long illness, their isolation, and their pain and loneliness. And to soothe them she constructed and gifted a large human-sized wooden flute player to the hospital. Every morning and evening, the wooden flute player would break into the most gentle music, absorbing all the pain of the people for a short time.

On seeing the effectiveness of the flute player, the town folks asked her if she could also make some wooden attendants who could do some basic routine work for the patients.

It was then, Ayodhya, the most accomplished craftsman of our time, of all times, used her unparalleled engineering skills to design a wooden nurse.

The nurse was five feet tall and walked in measured steps. With a clockwork precision, she could perform the following activities : wash the sick, change them, feed them and hold their hands in their deathbed and sing them a lullaby.

Gradually the need for the wooden nurses increased, the town rallied and thirteen such automatons were deployed. During this rare moment in history, in this corner of the world, men and machines were equal. Nurses and hospital staff treated the wooden nurses as their colleagues. Many people and soldiers perished but many started recovering too. The automatons were efficient and effective, and some nurses were jealous of how much the patients preferred the wooden nurses to the real ones.

These wooden nurses would work all day, retiring only for a few hours at night. They would not speak much themselves, but could understand the feelings of the humans instinctively. Many times in the night, these nurses were found sitting together in a circle, holding each other’s hands around a bon-fire and sing their lullabies. This ceremony made them seem more alive and mysterious to the rest of the people.

One day, Ayodhya, their mother, was brought to the hospital. And even though all thirteen of them rallied around her, Ayodhya did not survive the flu. On her deathbed, Ayodhya had asked to be burnt with her yellow wooden bird, “You all will continue to live after me but my bird will die when I die” — she had said.

***

Ayodhya’s death strengthened the resolve of these nurses and they started working harder, not even resting for a moment. Their efforts paid off and finally the disease left the town. But it took with it all the people who mattered to it, including the governor and his family. The town was in the hand of the survivors who were changed by the flu forever.

Their newly appointed governor was cruel and heartless. He decided to hold a grand ceremony to mark the end of the dark era of the disease. And to avenge the death of countless innocents, he decided to burn alive the remaining 25 foreign soldiers who were guilty of bringing this ghastly flu to their town.

As the day of the ceremony came closer, it was learned that the governor also wanted to burn all the wooden nurses with the soldiers. One could blame the soldiers for this. The soldiers, finding no warmth in the hearts of town folks had come closer to the wooden nurses, some even falling in love with them.

***

The old man told Sourabh that the town went ahead with the ceremony but the soldiers got a whiff of the conspiracy. They wanted to fight the town, but the nurses surrendered — “We can’t fight the ones we were made to nurture”, they said. The soldiers, however, rebelled and fought for themselves and also for the nurses. But they were outnumbered. It is likely the town people killed most of the soldiers, burnt most of the nurses but one soldier managed to escape with a nurse, just in time.

After fleeing the town the soldier and this wooden nurse decided to dedicate their lives for the well-being of the poor and sick and lived in this small house in this slum. Even though not married, he considered her his wife and a companion for life.

The wooden nurse, now even slower than before, called the old kind soldier closer. She held his hand. The story seems to have brought back all the memories she had stored in her chest, and this made her feel exhausted.

The man caressed the nurse’s wooden hand and she broke into a gentle beautiful lullaby. Few hours passed, as she continued to sing, and her tender, soothing voice engulfed the room. The voice gradually started becoming softer and slower.

And after a while she became completely quiet…and still.

Her name was Atmaja, the first daughter of Ayodhya.

As Sourabh exited the shack, he realised that Atmaja, the greatest machine ever built, not just lived like a real person, but also died like one.

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