The Alchemist

RESOLUTELY Vikram returned to the tree, took down the corpse, threw it across his shoulder, and began marching towards the burial ground. “O King,” said the Bethal of the corpse, “what a pity you should labour in the dead of night! Let me divert you with a tale.” He narrated the following tale:

At one time, King Suketu ruled over the Marala country. He was a man of great courage and little wealth. A terrible famine ravaged the country for twelve years, and Marala became one of the poorest. The famine killed a significant part of the population, and many left the land for food. The country suffered in every way.

To this land came a very aged alchemist, Viswa-Karma, by name. He saw the King and said, “O King, I have devoted my entire life to alchemy. If you can support me for a year, I shall be able to make gold in any quantity.”

King Suketu thought this was an excellent opportunity to make the kingdom rich. He had only to maintain the older man for a year, and there would be plenty of gold at his disposal; the country would prosper again. “Agreed,” said the King to Viswa-karma. “You can remain in the palace for a year and continue your experiments. I shall provide you with all the equipment you need. Then you make the gold, retain one-sixteenth of it for yourself and give me the rest.”

Viswakarma agreed to the terms. He was provided with a workshop with a furnace, crucibles, acids, jars and the like. He was also supplied with quantities of several base metals. The older man stayed in the workshop daily, experimenting with turning the baser metals into gold.

Weeks and months passed. All the older man’s wants were amply satisfied. He was having a lovely time. The year was soon gone. The King sent for the alchemist and asked if he had succeeded in his experiments.

“O King,” said the old man, “I am still experimenting. In another six months, I shall be able to manufacture as much gold as you want.”

The King was sorely disappointed. “You lied to me,” he said, “when you told me that you would be making gold in a year. But I shall pardon you this time. If you fail to make gold at the end of six months, your head shall be nailed to the fort wall. I hoped you would provide me with enough gold to make the country rich. Then, I thought, I would collect a huge army, conquer the neighbouring lands, and become a great king. You have frustrated all my plans. Mind you, I will not pardon you a second time.”

Viswakarma did not know what to do. He could not make even a particle of gold. He had devoted all his life to acquiring that art. To keep himself alive, he had to lie to various people. Now he was ancient. When he had asked for a year, he had hoped that he would be dead before the end of the year. But death had avoided him. He could not bring himself to commit suicide. He had obtained another six months of comfort but did not know what to do after that.

Viswakarma contemplated flight, but the King was having him guarded well. The King’s threat constantly echoed in his ears. It looked as though he was destined to die an unnatural death.

The six months were over. The King sent for the old man and asked him, “Are you ready to make gold now?”

“O King,” the old man boldly replied, “I am not destined to make gold. Even if I were to live a thousand years, I would not be able to make gold!”

“In that case,” the King said, “you know what punishment awaits you!”

“There is no need to punish me,” said the old man. “For, as a result of my experiments, I have discovered something which will be of greater value to you than all the gold in the world.”

“What have you discovered?” the King asked suspiciously.

“Silver!” the alchemist replied. “Silver purified with the help of several rare herbs.”

“Of what use is this silver to me?” asked the King.

“Sire,” said the old man, “I shall beat this silver into a thin sheet and cover the hilt of your sword with it. With that sword in your hand, you can conquer anyone. Let that sword obtain for you all the gold you want.”

“Are you going to cheat me again?” the King asked.

“O King, how can I deceive you and get away with it?” the old man replied. “If the sword fails you, you can behead me then, is it not so?”

The King thought that the older man spoke sensibly. He gave him his sword and got its hilt covered with magic silver. The blade was publicly taken out in a procession and then sanctified. Viswakarma obtained the gift of a county from the King.

News about the All-conquering Sword of King Suketu spread like wildfire. Some neighbouring rulers were frightened, but others did not believe the rumours. They thought that Viswa-karma had played a hoax upon King Suketu.

Soon Suketu collected a handful of soldiers and marched upon a neighbouring country. The ruler of that country sought the advice of his ministers. “Sire said the ministers, “Suketu has no army worth mentioning. He is marching upon us out of his blind faith in his sword. Let us fight with him,” said some of the ministers. But others said, “Suketu is no fool. He is too good a warrior to attack us with such small support unless there is something to his sword. They say that that sword is death to the enemy. It is foolish to die out of bravado. Sire, let us sign a truce with him!”

The King was thoroughly frightened. He went with his advisors to see Suketu in his camp. Suketu was standing with his sword in his hand. The neighbouring King saw death in that sword. He offered to accept defeat and become Suketu’s vassal.

From then on, Suketu never faced defeat. Even when some of the kings stood bravely against Suketu, their rank-and-file soldiers became panicky when they saw Suketu’s sword and ran from the field, making it easy for Suketu to get at his enemy and put him to death with his sword.

Soon Suketu found none to resist him. It was enough if he sent a messenger to the enemy camp. Immediately his enemies signed any treaty which he cared to draw up.

Suketu became a monarch over time. Marala country was once again prosperous. Viswa-karma’s name and fame spread far and wide.

Having finished the tale, Bethal said, “O King, tell me how Viswa-karma, who could not make a particle of gold despite years of effort, managed to manufacture silver with such great powers only within the space of six months? And why had he spent all his life maintaining himself with the help of lies? Your head shall split if you know the answer and still refuse to speak!”

“The silver manufactured by Viswa-karma had no powers whatsoever,” Vikram replied. “Such powers lie in the minds of those who believe in them. Suketu was the first man to believe in the powers of that silver. So he started on a march of conquest with only a small army. His neighbour was the next man to believe in the powers, and he accepted defeat without a fight. As the number of believers increased, so did the powers of the silver too. It is easier to create powers than to create materials. But Viswa-karma had to lie so long as he did not realise this truth. In the face of death, he realised this truth and prospered. This was the alchemy that he mastered in his old age!”

The Kings silence thus broken, the Bethal disappeared with the corpse and returned to the tree.

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